It is the liberal elite that feels tortured

Why has torture become a flashpoint political issue today when it was so flagrantly ignored in the past?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The British government’s loss in the Court of Appeal yesterday, where three judges ruled that it must make public a report on the alleged torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed while in US captivity for seven years, has delighted anti-torture campaigners. But while it is always satisfying when government censorship is overturned, it is worth asking what lies behind today’s radical and media distaste for torture. It might look like an edgy campaign, but there is something distinctly narcissistic and even conservative about it.

Binyam Mohamed is an Ethiopian national who moved to Britain in 1994. In 2001, he travelled to Afghanistan, for disputed reasons, and he was arrested in Karachi in 2002 while attempting to fly to Britain on a false passport. He was detained in Afghanistan, allegedly tortured in Morocco, and eventually flown to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held prisoner from 2004 to February 2009.

The UK Foreign Office redacted information pertaining to America’s alleged ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ treatment of Mohamed, but the Court of Appeal has now insisted that the censored text be published. Anti-torture campaigners have welcomed the court’s implication that the UK government, as one headline summarised it, was ‘devious, dishonest and complicit in torture’ (1).

Yet one question remains: when and why does torture become a flashpoint political issue and a concern for the liberal elite? Recent history tells us that torture does not always make the front pages of the papers and does not always agitate radical and liberal campaigners to the extent that they will build campaigns against it. It is not the acts of torture themselves that determine whether or not torture becomes a big issue, but the political circumstances surrounding them and the question of whether the conflict in question is considered legitimate and the government of the day is seen as ‘decent’ or ‘decadent’.

This was brought home by a headline in the Guardian in December last year. After years of frontpage splashes on America’s torture of suspected Islamic militants, on 21 December 2009 the Guardian ran a headline saying: ‘British army waterboarded suspects in 1970s.’ (2) It was a report on Liam Holden’s appeal against his 1973 conviction for killing a British soldier in Northern Ireland, a conviction that was based on an unsigned confession extracted from Holden by members of the Parachute Regiment who put a ‘towel over his face before pouring water from a bucket over his nose and mouth, giving him the impression that he was drowning’. In other words, they ‘waterboarded’ him.

This is extraordinary – no, not that waterboarding and other forms of torture took place in Northern Ireland, which many of us have known about for years, but the fact that it took until 2009 for an act of torture that took place in Britain in 1973 to be covered by a British newspaper. What is more extraordinary is that over the past five years, liberal campaigners have spent a great deal of energy trying to uncover evidence of America’s waterboarding of terror suspects, and Britain’s knowledge of this fact, while there remain in recent British history unexposed and unexplored instances of waterboarding.

Torture was widespread during the conflict in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1994 – but it was rarely, if ever, covered by the British press, and it certainly did not generate indignant campaigns. Irish republicans and Catholics arrested by the police or picked up by the army were subjected to sleep deprivation, ‘white noise’ tactics, waterboarding, ‘death scenarios’ (in which they were made to believe that they were about to die, such as being held out of low-flying helicopters), threats of violence and actual violence.

Suspects were stripped naked – to ‘enhance their vulnerability’ – and had ‘opaque cloth bags with no ventilation’ put over their heads. They were subjected to ‘wall-standing’, which involves forcing a suspect to adopt the search position by leaning against a wall – one suspect was kept like this for 43.5 hours. Other suspects were kept in close proximity to machinery that made a continuous, monotonous whine and were kept awake for days on end. This reportedly drove one man to try to commit suicide by banging his head against the metal pipes running though his cell (3).

There were some complaints about these activities. The Republic of Ireland complained to the European Court of Human Rights in 1971. Amnesty International carried out some investigations. The British government launched the Compton Inquiry into torture in 1971, which found, unsurprisingly, that there had definitely been ‘ill-treatment’, but no torture. But the use of torture in Northern Ireland did not galvanise British liberals and it certainly did not stir the media to send investigative reporters to find out as much as possible for the purposes of frontpage splashes.

The disparity between today’s coverage of the torture of suspected Islamic militants and yesterday’s non-coverage of the torture of suspected Irish republicans is not only striking because it reveals a double standard in British liberal angst. More fundamentally, it shines a light on the politics of torture and the question of when and why torture becomes a problem for a certain section of society.

The use of torture in a conflict normally becomes a flashpoint issue only when that conflict has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the government’s critics and when a government itself is seen as decayed and past its sell-by date. In other words, the obsession with torture is quite often a proxy for expressing angst about the governments that rule over us and about our values and way of life. Torture is rarely focused on as a way of criticising military interventionism per se or as part of a campaign to support the right to self-determination of other peoples, but mainly as a means of self-criticism and self-exploration, of expressing a broader feeling of weariness with our own ruling bodies.

Fundamentally, the reason why torture in Northern Ireland was never uncovered is because the vast majority of British liberals and radicals considered Britain’s war in Ireland to be legitimate. They might have occasionally expressed concerns when things went too far – such as with the massacre of 13 unarmed Catholics on Bloody Sunday in 1972 or the use of plastic bullets against protesters or allowing 10 republican prisoners to die in the Hunger Strike of 1981 – but their acceptance of Britain’s right to govern Northern Ireland, and therefore to suppress the opponents of British rule, meant they approached that conflict with no serious critical zeal. By contrast, the ‘war on terror’ is seen by many as illegitimate, or at least as questionable, which means they are more likely to ask awkward questions.

Even then, however, the focus on torture as the worst possible aspect of the ‘war on terror’ launched by America and Britain is revealing. Torture specifically is taken up because it is the issue through which the liberal elite’s main grievance about the ‘war on terror’ can be expressed: no, not that it is a reckless, ill-thought-through foreign venture that has denigrated the sovereign and democratic rights of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, but that certain aspects of it bring shame on British society.

It is instructive to look back at another time in history when torture became a major focus of liberal and radical campaigning – during France’s Algerian War of 1954 to 1962. For some French intellectuals, the worst thing about France’s war against the Algerian independence movement was not the massacres of Algerians or the suppression of the Algerian people’s self-determination, but the French military’s use of torture against Algerian prisoners (as depicted in the brilliant 1962 film The Battle of Algiers). French intellectuals described the torture as ‘la gangrene’, a disease that would infect French society. Jean-Paul Sartre admitted to feeling ‘uneasy’ about the FLN, the main national liberation army fighting against the French colonialists, but said of the French military: ‘But the torture? Can someone retain a friendship with someone who approves of it?’ (4) Many of the French campaigners against torture in Algeria made clear that they didn’t support the Algerian independence fighters but were concerned about the impact that the use of torture would have on ‘French integrity and the reputation of the French military’ (5).

Discomfort with torture became a way of expressing concerns about the state of French society itself. Today, too, torture has become more about us than them. Contemporary anti-torture campaigners also refer to torture as a ‘disease’ (echoing the French ‘gangrene’) that is undermining what it means to be British (6). But today’s myopic focus on torture is history repeated as farce. At least Sartre and other French intellectuals opposed torture in an attempt to recapture ‘the France of the Rights of Man and Citizen’, and of course others went further still and questioned France’s suppression of African people’s democratic rights (7). Today’s anti-torture campaigners, by contrast, merely want to expose Britain’s alleged slavishness to the evil Bushites and generate a Love, Actually-style world in which floppy-haired British PMs stand up for fair play and decency. It is really they who feel tortured, morally and politically.

The usefulness of the torture issue today is that it allows campaigners to focus on the acts of one military man against one suspect, thus removing broader national and democratic questions and replacing them with narrow discussions of fairness and individual morality. They have disgracefully distilled the entire ‘war on terror’ and the destruction of Afghanistan into What Was Done To Binyam Mohamed.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins called the war on terror a nasty, panicky failure. Kevin Rooney reviewed Hunger. Brendan O’Neill described the liberal hijacking of the campaign against Guantanamo. Mick Hume compared Abu Ghraib to reality TV. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror.

(1) Top judge: Binyam Mohamed case shows MI5 to be devious, dishonest and complicit in torture, Guardian, 10 February 2010

(2) British army ‘waterboarded’ suspects in 70s, Guardian, 21 December 2009

(3) See The Torture Question, Frontline, PBS

(4) Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria, James D Le Sueur, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001

(5) Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria, James D Le Sueur, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001

(6) Binyam Mohamed: a shameful cover-up, Guardian, 10 February 2010

(7) Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria, James D Le Sueur, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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