Bin Laden’s death can’t be used to justify torture

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In Robert Bolt’s play Man For All Seasons, Sir Thomas More makes an impassioned speech on the urgency of the rule of law to his future son-in-law, William Roper. Roper, in conversation with Sir More, suggests that granting the devil the benefit of the law would be absurd and unjustified. On the contrary, More argues, if you chase the devil and cut down all the laws in order to do so, once the devil turns around and starts chasing you, there won’t be anywhere left to hide. The law, More says, must protect even the devil “for my own safety’s sake”.

After the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, it seems we’ve found ourselves in a somewhat similar situation. The devil has been chased to the tranquil city of Abbottabad, been shot square in the eye (twice for good measure) and dumped in the sea. To add insult to injury, we’ve gone through all his personal possessions, told the world of the embarrassing medication he was on and uploaded humiliating videos of him to YouTube. It’s hardly compensation for the thousands of lives lost, but I take no real shame in having smiled at learning the personification of evil spent his days sat around in his pyjamas watching videos of himself in what looks like messy, sub-standard student accommodation.

The devil that’s eventually turned around to face us in this instance isn’t the much talked-up threat of a retaliatory strike from al-Qaeda on Western shores. For all their dystopian, Orwellian swagger it seems like the reams of anti-terrorism legislation both in the UK and the US has, at least, done its job in making it very difficult if not impossible for large-scale attacks to occur for the time being. The threat that faces us at this instance is in fact the western war criminals that have seen fit to come out of the woodwork (or should that be shadows?) and insist that their brutal conduct during the Bush years was in fact what led us to being able to shoot Satan in the eye.

The claims being made require a big logical assumption on the part of those who believe them. It goes something like: we were looking for Bin Laden, people were tortured beforehand, therefore – torture led us to Bin Laden. Obviously there is no actual evidence for the claim that water boarding and sleep deprivation were instrumental in leading US forces to Bin Laden, but what evidence there is suggests in fact the opposite. The cause célèbre of torture advocates, Kaleid Sheikh Mohammed, was water boarded 183 times and actually provided false information relating to the courier who led to the eventual death of Osama Bin Laden. But “ah” say the torture advocates, it was precisely that false information that tipped off his interrogators that the courier was a high-value suspect.

The cognitive dissonance is as astounding as it is obvious. When torture leads to correct information it’s vindicated, but when it garners false information, it’s also vindicated. Furthermore, perceptive commentators like Andrew Sullivan have also noted the sinister shift in focus of those eager to torture. Before, torture was only permitted in a ticking time-bomb thought experiment. The dubiousness of the ticking time-bomb scenario has been recognised for a long time, with human rights lawyers such as Geoffrey Robertson QC correctly pointing out that if there truly was a ticking time-bomb, a terrorist could simply lie and lead the authorities on a wild goose chase. Now it would seem the efficacy of torture is broader – it’s permitted even when there is no imminent threat and irrespective of whether the information it leads to is correct or not.

It’s important to be aware of the reality of the operation which led to Bin Laden’s assassination. The Economist ran a piece recently referring to the death of Bin Laden as “Lester Freamon’s finest hour”. For those not up-to-date on TV dramas, Lester Freamon is one of the main characters in The Wire who spends his time painstakingly taking photographs from buildings, sifting through financial reports and constructing family-tree style diagrams in order to take down Baltimore’s drug cartels at their source. He’s also one of the more effective police officers in the series. Whereas the war criminals of the right would like to pretend that it was Jack Bauer from 24 who was really at the heart of counter-terrorism leading to Bin Laden, the truth is that what led us to the devil himself was boring analysis and calm, measured interrogation which is frequently proven to be much more effective than suffocating people until they’ll tell you something.

There is a perception in the minds of people like Liz Cheney and Bush laywer John Yoo in thinking that the ultimate prohibition on torture in international law is the result of a bunch of radical, do-gooder human rights lawyers who have no conception of how warfare is to be conducted, but this is not the case. Aside from the inherent wrongness of torturing anybody, people like former FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan (who served on the FBI’s Osama Bin Laden unit for six years) recognise that reliable information from sophisticated terrorists such as those in al-Qaeda doesn’t come through torture. Terrorists are trained to resist brutal measures and furthermore view suffering as a thing to be endured in return for ultimate reward in paradise. What gets effective information is calm, measured police work, not sleep deprivation and simulated drowning.

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