British resident Shaker Aamer was repatriated last week. He spent thirteen years in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Whilst incarcerated it’s suspected he witnessed and may even have experienced both psychological and physical torture.

Bounty hunters first intercepted him on the Afghan border with Pakistan in 2001 during the aftermath of 9/11. He was thought to have met Osama bin Laden and therefore became a target in the hope he could facilitate the capture of senior members of al Qaeda.

Since his arrest he’s maintained he was in the region working for charities. US officials never tried him; in 2010 they eventually conceded there was insufficient evidence to charge him. Yet it took five years to release him and speculation has now mounted as to whether Aamer will pursue legal action against the US government.

This dramatic saga once again highlights the mistakes made by both intelligence services and governments in the War on Terror. It also encourages one to consider whether torture can ever be justified.

It’s now known that in the immediate years after 2001 the CIA engaged in the rendition and torture of those affiliated with terrorist organisations. It often transferred its captives to covert American ‘black sites’ in foreign countries; transporting prisoners outside of US legal jurisdiction allowed the CIA to conduct enhanced interrogation techniques.

These techniques included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, severe beatings and stress positions. All were inflicted upon individuals with the desire to extract relevant information about potential terrorist plots. When details of mock executions and sexual assault emerged the programme lost its credibility in the face of a huge public outcry. The techniques were reputed to have occurred at Guantanamo too. So is torture justified?

Referring to the classic ticking time-bomb scenario proponents of torture would argue that in order to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians we are justified in administering force to discover the location of the bomb so that we might defuse it. Opponents of torture claim this reveals a creeping totalitarianism. They declare that torture is the graphic expression of the supremacy of government over the rights of individual citizens.

A state that fails to abandon torture can consequently be thought of as retaining a feature of totalitarianism. This is because it preserves torture as a device for the suppression of its own citizens and those of other nations.

Once you employ the use of force at what point do you stop? Waterboarding is after all a time consuming method of torture. If time is precious it makes more sense to threaten the subject of your interrogation with a more efficient torment. What about genital mutilation? Or perhaps blinding? Threats of this calibre would encourage most people to provide their interrogator with the desired information as quickly as possible. Yet this offers another explanation as to why torture should never be used and why it can’t be justified.

Analysts of torture claim that the information divulged in moments of extreme stress can be misleading. This assertion is supported by the claim Aamer apparently made false confessions to end his torture at Bagram air base after his initial capture in 2001. Further inquiries into the utility of methods of enhanced interrogation have recently shown that in no instances has the use of these techniques prevented a terrorist attack.

Thus a framework for the interrogation of suspected terrorists that is clearly defined and operates entirely within international and domestic law is needed. Neglecting international and domestic law will only provide others with a pretext for violence.

Is it surprising that western hostages executed by ISIS are dressed in orange jump suits similar to the ones seen at Guantanamo for instance? This is surely an explicit attempt by ISIS to demonstrate their hatred of the abuses that have been enacted by the US.

Do not entertain the notion that I seek to excuse ISIS from its crimes; the brutal murder of innocent people is never justified. But rendition and torture have marred America’s reputation internationally and has prompted new forms of violence. Significantly it will now be far harder for the US to criticise oppressive regimes.


Axel Fithen

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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