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Greg Sheridan on torture

By Max Atkinson - posted Monday, 16 July 2012

The use of torture is anathema to a civilised society. We decry the Spanish Inquisition yet tacitly accept or ignore the use of torture, both physical and psychological, in many of our closest trading partners. Do the panellists follow the rule that the ends justify the means?

Greg Sheridan's work as a journalist is impressive; a veteran of 30 years in the field, he has written five books, hundreds of articles, and regularly comments on television and radio. He is also a man of culture; in the first few minutes of the ABC's Q and A for May 21 we learn that he 'loves' Jane Austen, is currently reading George Eliot, and likes to cite Henry James on the importance of love. He also believes, with vague qualifications, in the use of torture. None of this would matter if he were not also, at least in the judgment of News Limited, Australia's 'most influential foreign affairs analyst'.

Like other intellectuals in politics he must accommodate his views on torture to his (Catholic) religious convictions. He would be aware that Pope Benedict xv1, in December 2005, condemned the use of torture in the war against terrorism and that eminent legal scholars, including leading Natural Law philosopher John Finnis, believe the right to be free from torture in the Universal Declaration of Rights is categorical - it is not qualifiedby limitations which apply to other rights to meet the 'just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society' (Art. 29).


One might imagine he is also conversant with the Russian classics and Dostoyevsky's famous question, posed by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, on the nature of evil:

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature - that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance - and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth?

With the possible exception of Kant, no philosophical theory has put a more forceful case against torture; certainly none has put a more eloquent argument against the 'serpentine wanderings of the happiness theory', and the idea that the end justifies the means.

Perhaps so, but what has this to do with the fact that Australia's most influential foreign affairs writer supports torture? He is entitled to his opinion no less than Kant, Finnis and Dostoevsky. The answer is that it may explain a deep ambivalence in this support, which leads Sheridan to begin his reply with a hedged denunciation:

Well, no, I'm against torture under any circumstances…. But I tell you this: I do think you … confront a much more disturbing, difficult, interesting moral dilemma when you construct a case where torture does work and might save many innocent lives. Now I don't think that justifies out and out torture but I don't think it's absolutely black and white. I don't think you're obliged to give the Taliban that you capture on the battlefield a slice of apple pie and a cup of tea and a warm environment. I think you are allowed to be pretty robust in your questioning.

Tony Jones tried robust questioning: 'Can I just ask, what is the limitation you put on this because we know that American Republicans at very senior levels talk about enhanced interrogation techniques?'

Sheridan: 'Well I think, you know, there have got to be rules and the CIA, as I understand it, asked for proper legal guidance all the time and found it very difficult to get legal guidance.'

Jones: 'But they ended up doing a lot of water boarding, for example. So just to sort of test you here, do you think water boarding is legitimate?'

Sheridan: 'Well … there are other authors with similar knowledge who argue that enhanced interrogation techniques did provide lifesaving information. Now, it seems to me if the...'

Jones persists: 'So just to get back to my question, would you condone water boarding?'

Sheridan: 'Well, I'm getting, in my crab like way, to an answer, Tony. If the technique doesn't leave any lasting physical damage whatsoever or any lasting psychological damage then I think you have to examine whether, in an extreme case, it might be allowed. But I wouldn't have a blanket policy saying, yes, you can water board, but I wouldn't absolutely rule out things which are pretty stressful in the interrogation.'

Jones: 'isn't this exactly why policemen used to use rubber hoses and hit people with telephone books so it didn't leave a mark?'

Sheridan appeals to realism: 'Yeah, but I just don't think you can just blanket whitewash everything and say you can't do anything that's stressful to a prisoner under any circumstances, no matter what because that's not the reality of any battlefield'.


In the end, of course, he did answer: in 'extreme' cases 'you must examine whether it might be allowed'. So in special cases the government will have a duty to consider torture, a formula which is broad and fuzzy enough to justify the official abuses by US authorities at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Having got this far by enhanced interrogation we need to pause, because any serious discussion of the morality of torture must distinguish two kinds of justification. The first is for philosophers searching for the perfect moral theory. Its concern is with cases so exotic and so catastrophic they have nothing to do with the ordinary affairs of mankind, such as the nuclear bomb ticking away in a New York basement, with incontrovertible proof the suspect put it there.

This is not a moral argument but a rhetorical device to justify excesses in US foreign policy.

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An edited version of this article was first published on Eureka Street.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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