’24’ Justifications for torture

Category: Americas, Articles, Politics | Topic: human rights | Views: 2,542

Last year when I visited the Pentagon as Today’s Zaman columnists, the Pentagon’s support for “24,” amongst other things, attracted my attention. It was quite interesting seeing a Pentagon section informing visitors which productions are supported by the US military. 

There was no explanation about the nature of this “support.” However, I said to myself then these productions supported by the Pentagon must be supporting the Pentagon in return.

“24” is a very successful television series; there is no doubt about it. But when I watched the episodes in which they try to justify torture (Season 2), I felt a little bit disgusted. The Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU), which is at the center of all events in the series, was informed that an atomic bomb will go off in California in 24 hours. There are, of course, the usual suspects behind this conspiracy against the US. A Middle Eastern terrorist group will detonate this bomb. However, there are wider implications in this conspiracy involving some government officials, and one of the prime suspects is a baby-faced white American lady, which means that the series is not trying to exploit well-known prejudices. Nevertheless, to find out where this bomb is, some people are tortured. One torture incident is even closely supervised and monitored by the president of the US in the film. This episode is designed in such a way that they convince us there is no way other than torture to extract information from the suspects.

This “ticking time bomb” is a well-known trick to justify torture. It has been used on many occasions in various contexts in different countries. The most well known and famous use of this argument is the defense before the Israeli High Court. Israel used to apply “physical coercion” to the suspects of terrorist offenses and they did this in accordance with the law. Actually, I appreciated their frankness. For example, Turkey, up until very recently, applied torture on quite a widespread basis and categorically denied its usage. Israel, on the other hand, applied ill treatment under written rules. When there was a challenge against these rules as to whether they were in conformity with higher principles, advocates of torture used this argument before the Israeli High Court. When the lives of tens of thousands people are at stake, and when we get someone who planted this bomb, should we refrain from the use of coercion for the sake of compliance with some rules?

Manipulation to bypass principle of human rights 

This is a very shrewd trick. If you say you would refuse to torture the suspect, they would even accuse you of not loving the people. I can develop many arguments against them. Well, whatever you do, there are people who would not speak. You would never be sure if you are torturing the “right person.” You may be manipulated in the wrong direction by the information given under pressure and so on. Actually, as soon as I start to discuss this possibility, I fall into the very trap that the advocates of evil want us to fall into. What they are basically doing is just manipulation to bypass a well-established human rights principle to get us used to the idea that there might be certain conditions in which torture might be justified. Once we are warmed to this idea, systematic and widespread human rights violations would be much easier to accept. Then we can turn a blind eye to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition programs and so on.

Torture and ill treatment always involve some moral decay, no matter what kind of excuse you use to justify it. I guess the producers of “24” are aware of this dimension, and they put a limit on the deviation from human rights rules. When the agents in the CTU, in cooperation with local authorities in the terrorist’s own country, abducted the family of a terrorist and threaten him with killing his relatives if he does not speak, the president interferes with this event saying that killing innocent people is against American values. Why is torture not against these values?

Here is another problem: When Americans and Europeans involve themselves in torture, they not only violate human rights but also lose the moral authority to pressure autocratic regimes that systematically apply torture to silence opposition. I clearly remember how Freedom House and other American human rights NGOs suffered from the crisis of legitimacy the Bush administration created with their human rights abuses. They wanted to do something to help human rights defenders in Central Asia, but they could not do anything because of the terrible American image that prevailed in these countries during those years.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, I had just published a guide for the Prevention of Torture which was funded by the British Embassy in Ankara. The book was going to be distributed to judges throughout Turkey, and it was quite embarrassing for me to carry out this project with the funding of the British government when ugly pictures of American and British soldiers were being revealed every day. Luckily the embassy postponed the distribution of the book, which saved me from suffering disgrace.

The Bush administration tried to justify torture and other human rights violations with these kinds of “ticking time bomb” arguments. They did not want us to see that terrorism’s main source of sustenance is the feeling of injustice. The more the West deviates from its fundamental values the more ammunition it gives to the terrorists. Today, terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda are fighting against the values of the West. When the West assumes a hypocritical role with regard to its own values, it only makes the terrorists’ work easier. Yes, there is indeed a “ticking time bomb,” and it is sacrificing fundamental human rights values for the illusion of having more security. This bomb can explode at any moment in any country in the world — be alert out ‘there!aaaa’.


Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a Columnist for Today’s Zaman from Turkey.


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