Torture: Torture is evil, not a forensic technique

Hitchens gets the idea

“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” – Carl Jung

It is a travesty that even democracies have dungeons. Conceptually the two should not co-exist. A democracy is a system of government whose primary normative goal is the preservation of human rights not indulging in violating them systematically. But recently two democracies the world’s largest (India) and the world’s oldest (US) both have been implicated in institutionalized use of torture.

The declassification of the now famous “torture Memos” that show how the Bush administration tried to legalize torture as enhanced interrogation techniques, has generated an intense political debate about the moral responsibility and limits of a democracy in the US. Even though the release of the memos has exposed some Americans to international and possibly domestic prosecution for war crimes; it has also underscored the serious commitment that American democracy makes to human rights.

It is however very disappointing that some still insist that we should use torture while others argue that waterboarding is not really torture. They should try it or at least watch Christopher Hutchins brief attempt to experience it.

I once hit my head against a boat while swimming in the sea off Mumbai’s coast and momentarily passed out. I nearly drowned and then came to my senses. Imagine waking up while drowning. I cannot describe the intense mix of dread and terror I felt. I can still recall vividly, 20 years after that event, the horror that I experienced that day. Believe me, I will say anything not to relive that experience. It was terrifying.

According to most experts of torture, barring a few like Dick Cheney, torture is ineffective. If we have to waterboard people hundreds of times, then either torture doesn’t work at all, or we have some really very sadistic and mean people working in our government. Torture is evil not a forensic technique.

While the memos showcase the dark side of America, they also highlight the bright side. The debate shows that there are many Americans who will not compromise their values even when faced with the fear of terrorism.

Muslims have known for decades that Muslim countries in the Middle East torture political prisoners. We have also learned that it was to Muslim countries that the US was out-sourcing the torture that it could not handle in-house. But there is no hue and cry from Muslims about this as there was when the Abu Ghraib and Gitmo stories came out. Unfortunately torture by Middle Eastern governments is normal.

Muslims have learnt to live with it. It is a shame that there is so little campaigning from Muslims on the issue of torture, even though those who are being tortured everywhere are primarily Muslims.

Torture has become a global epidemic and takes many ugly forms. The recent circulation of a video out of Pakistan, showing two men holding a young women down on the ground while another man hit her on her behind with a stick with a big crowd watching was surreal. This was torture as a spectator sport! And that too in the name of God! The episode has shaken Pakistani civil society and sparked many protests. People marched in the streets demanded that the barbarians responsible for the shameful act were brought to justice.

Last Saturday, on May 2nd, 2009, I keynoted an event hosted by the Indian Muslim Council in Chicago, which sought to increase awareness in the United States about the Indian governments use of extrajudicial tactics – detention without legal arrests, torture and systematic harassment of minorities in India. These tactics in India are indicative of the institutionalization of prejudice in law enforcement agencies.

A recent Indian governmental investigation by a special attorney – the Ravi Chander Report – exposed how the Indian police had randomly arrested several youth in India and tortured them trying to force them to confess to terrorism. The release of that report is creating awareness about the widespread use of torture in India.

I am happy that I got an opportunity to make a small but meaningful contribution to raise awareness and encourage condemnation of torture. I invite all you good folks out there to do one small thing, wherever you are, in whatever way you can, against torture.

Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).


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