Monday, August 31, 2009

Vir Sanghvi on Torture

I have written in admiration of Vir Sanghvi's style in the past, but have a number of issues with his column about torture in yesterday's Hindustan Times.
Sanghvi begins with a hypothetical question: what if you had a terrorist in custody who could provide information about an imminent attack? Would it be acceptable to torture him in order to save a number of lives? Phrased the way it is, the question is skewed in favour of those answering, "Yes, torture would be acceptable in such a scenario."
When a question involves a guarantee of saving innocent lives, it is hard to argue against. In the real world, though, states which employ torture have a pretty bad civil rights record. Torture claims far more innocent lives than it saves.
Sanghvi himself acknowledges the "sliding scale where policemen keep lowering the requirement for the use of torture". What he does not point out is that torture was routine in Indian police stations long before terrorism became a major threat. It wasn't as if we allowed torture in exceptional circumstances and then saw its use spread to non-terrorist suspects.
There are other problems with Sanghvi's argument. He advances the CIA's use of waterboarding as evidence that, when push comes to shove, every nation will stretch its definition of the acceptable. The difference between us and the West, he suggests, is merely a matter of them waking up recently to threats we have experienced for a long time.
This line of thinking ignores three important facts. First, the CIA is an organisation very different from the local police. All spy agencies engage in activities in foreign countries which count as illegal in those nations. American spies break Chinese law, just as Chinese spies break American law. The comparison between the CIA and the Indian police, therefore, is fundamentally misguided. Second, while waterboarding was used by the CIA against non-US citizens captured in foreign lands who were considered beyond the pale of the American justice system, the overwhelming majority of those tortured by Indian security forces are Indian citizens. Third, the technique of waterboarding was specifically okayed at the highest levels of the Bush administration after being vetted by constitutional experts, an opinion which has been overturned by the Obama team. Torture by Indian police and military personnel, on the other hand, contravenes Indian law, and has not been labelled an accepted practise by any legal or governmental authority.
Every day new reports are published about how waterboarding and other rigorous forms of interrogation compromised the search for the truth after 9/11. The interrogations were frequently driven, not by a desire to uncover details of the plot, but to find politically desirable evidence, such as a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
There's as yet no hard evidence that waterboarding prevented any attacks on US soil, but the US and Britain have prevented a number of terrorist assaults through conventional means, and brought the plotters to book. You can read details of some of the trials here and here and here and here and here and here.
Torture is no substitute for thorough investigation, except in television shows like 24. Cruel violence will get anybody to speak, but what the person says will usually be aimed at getting the torture to stop. If those being questioned believe they will be hurt for as long as they maintain their innocence, they will admit guilt. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether they're actually guilty or not. Sanghvi mentions such drawbacks in passing, but goes on to say, "The argument against torture is not one of efficiency. It’s one of human rights." Actually, it is both. The inefficiency of torture makes it a far greater threat to individual rights, because it ensures the innocent are treated as harshly as the guilty.
In the final analysis, the public does not support cruel acts against criminals primarily for utilitarian reasons, but out of a desire for vengeance. I suspect most Indians would be glad to see Ajmal Kasab whipped even if there was no further evidence to be got from him. I am reminded of a scene from the Ridley Scott thriller, Body of Lies. Hani Salaam, the head of Jordanian intelligence, dismisses the efficacy of torture in warding off future attacks. What works, he says, is good intelligence from assets on the ground. Later in the film Leonardo DiCaprio witnesses a man being flogged by Salaam's assistants, and asks what happened to his dismissal of torture. "This isn't torture", the smirking Salaam replies, "it's punishment".


Sarabjit Singh said...

A must read for Mr. Sanghavi to broaden his world view.

globalbabble said...

Yah, I didn't understand Sanghvi's argument either, which was surprising because usually I like his comments.

VV said...

Great analysis, Girish. Loved the last part.
Given the abundance of literature on the use of torture (both pro and against) I am surprised that Sanghavi used such weak and tired arguments.
I just wanted to remark on his statement "the battle against terrorism often leaves policemen and soldiers with no choice but to sacrifice the human rights of terrorists" where he attempts to make an efficiency argument.
I particularly admire how he (and others) bandy around words like *with no choice* with not even an iota of evidence of any sort. This irrational, superstitious faith in the decision-making prowess of cops appears to be the anchor for his article.