Torture by degrees

When a BBC online worldwide poll shows that a third of 27,000 respondents believed some degree of torture was acceptable when dealing with terrorist suspects, we should be seriously concerned.

That so many people from 25 countries can even begin to think that such methods can be of any tangible use in combating terrorism or any other crimes the world may be facing, is worrying, and should make us reflect on where we have arrived at as a human race and what we have become. It’s notable that among the highest rates of those who thought torturing suspects was acceptable or of benefit, were in the US (36%) and Israel (43%), with 24% of those polled in the UK agreeing.

Forget, it seems, the basic notion of “innocent until proven guilty”. What exactly does the phrase “some degree of torture” actually mean?

Over the past few years and since the 11th of September 2001 attacks in the US, several hundreds of suspects, possibly more than 1,600, were detained by British intelligence forces and locked up in various prison facilities. Most were held in Belmarsh, giving it the notorious label of being our very own Guantanamo.

Of those held, some for up to two years, only a few were ever charged, and only a fraction of those were charged with terrorism-related offences. While it may be convenient for the security authorities and possibly even government to cite such figures as proof that the tactics and terror legislation employed are working, no one seems to be asking about the plight of the 98% of those suspects who have or are in the process of being released without being charged with committing any offence.

No one seems to be interested in why they were arrested in the first place, how that reflects on our intelligence gathering and security structures, and what becomes of these people once released back into their communities and wider society.

I have met and spoken to a number of such individuals and I have read the stories of many more. It is clear that the experience of being arrested, mostly by brutal, heavy-handed and merciless raids on their homes in the middle of the night, leaves an indelible scar on their lives and on all those who know them. One such suspect told me that his five year old son, who witnessed his dad being held down and beaten severely on the back by four heavily armed anti-terror officers at 4 am in the morning whilst others ransacked the small household, is still afraid of sitting on his lap two years on from his release from his seven month term in a Belmarsh prison cell.

His own family members are confused and extremely afraid, his neighbours even more so and the community has never allowed him to “slip back” quietly into the life he used to have before the incident. Previously a professional IT expert with a prosperous career ahead of him, now he claims unemployment benefit and stares into the abyss of a broken life and an uncertain future.

His case, merely one of hundreds, is an example of an individual whose rights and privileges as a citizen and more importantly as a human being, were ripped apart one winter night in 2003, leading him to care less about the safety, security and well-being of the country in which he was born, whose language he spoke as his first, whose sporting teams he supported, and whose flag he flew on every possible occasion.

He speaks bitterly of a system that let him down, of how he now sees democracy and human rights as myths, of a society that chooses to ignore what really goes on in its midst and refuses to confront the frightening reality – that we can act as brutally and inhumanly as those we claim to wage war against to rid the world of their tyranny and oppression. After a moment’s hesitation, he asks me whether he would be blamed if he chose to join a radical or even terrorist group and carry out an act in revenge for himself, his dignity and those he loves and who now could not help but see him in a different light and treat him in a different way. And he wasn’t tortured, in the physical sense, at least. Think of where he would be, and what he would do if he was.

Can anyone seriously belive that continuing the same practices, creating growing numbers of disillusioned and wronged individuals, makes society safer, more secure, more stable, more harmonious and united?

A US soldier testifying in a case of alleged torture, rape and murder carried out against an Iraqi girl and her family, claimed in his statement that the senior officer at the scene told his troops to “wipe them out”, because they were “damaged goods” and that if they weren’t killed, then one day they and their children would come back to kill their sadistic tormentors.

How many “damaged goods” are we creating in our midst by proceeding with this foolish view that the more people we lock up and – if the above survey was to be believed – torture, the better we and our overall security would be served?

The question that many will pose in response to the above argument is: what else can we do to combat terrorism? The truth is that few people have intelligent answers to how to eradicate extremism, violence and terrorism. But these problems are not exclusive to Muslims, people of faith or those who hold to a particular ideology.

But I do know that we must never ever concede our humanity; we must persist in believing and understanding that we are all equals regardless of our faith, creed, colour, language, ethnicity or race. I also know that we must never do ourselves, what we claim to be fighting, however difficult times get and however great the challenges become.

An American expert spoke on CNN recently advocating the use of certain levels of torture. He cited the scenario of a suspect breaking down under “moderate torture” and giving information on a possible terrorist attack that may claim the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

True, it could happen. But how many more innocent people would have been forsaken, with their long-term security and safety compromised as a result? Where would our values of humanity, freedom, dignity and democracy stand thereafter and how well could we defend them against those who are without such notions?