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Illiberal Implications
Torturer’s Theater

Values crucified

When is torture acceptable? The question, of course, is itself unacceptable: Posing it begins the legitimization of what ought never be legitimized. Any subsequent qualifiers are equally unacceptable. And yet here’s one. What if my son, my daughter, my wife, my family was in the grips of a torturer and I somehow could extract them from those grips—by means of torture? The question at that point seems to me no longer “would I hesitate,” but “should I hesitate?” And what is the difference between authorizing official torture and conducting it as an individual? The questions arose from an interesting post by Sophia on what she perceives as the mainstreaming of torture.

Robert Ménard is the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, the advocacy organization. On August 16, France Culture, the French radio station, interviewed Ménard, who spoke at length about torture in the context of the Daniel Pearl execution. (Pearl is the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped in Karachi in 2002 and executed—either by Muslim terrorists or on behalf of Pakistan’s intelligence services, which have had one shoe in America’s graces and another in al-Qaeda’s.) Speaking of the movie made of the Pearle story, and of meeting with Pearle’s wife, Ménard wondered where the ine could be drawn in the attempts to get at Pearle’s captors. He asked the question that shouldn’t be asked: “What justifies [torture]… Can we go that far to free someone? It’s a real question.” (“Qu’est ce qui justifie… Est-ce que pour libérer quelqu’un, on peut aller jusque là? C’est une vraie question.”)

Sophia didn’t take kindly to the comments. “Reporters Without Borders,” she wrote, “are seen as defenders of freedom of expression and liberal western values. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that this NGO’s secretary general, Robert Ménard, declares Torture to be legitimate in some cases. Why is RWB’s endorsement of Torture not a surprise ? Because there is no debate on Torture anymore in western societies. We have adopted and banalised Torture. Torture is becoming mainstream. What did we do when we learned about Abu Ghraib? What did we do when we learned of Guantanmo? What did we do when we learned of Bush’s secret prisons and extraordinary renditions ? Nothing. So it does not come as a surprise that those who hold western liberal values as their lightning rod express actually their acceptation of Torture. Torture is definitely going mainstream. The absence of a public debate about it is a shocking proof of its acceptation. Read the interview, the radio host did not actually react to Ménard. And the French press, in general, except Rue89, did not report the fact. There is nothing to say actually about Torture.”

Sophia and I have a running battle over the meaning of western liberal values, which I think she conflates too easily with whatever is wrong with western imperial, or rather imperious, values (and plenty is wrong with those). The two aren’t the same and are, in fact, in perpetual opposition—the kind of opposition and self-analysis western liberal values foster generally better than non-western values do. That’s what liberalism is at heart: an open-ended questioning where no question ought to be off limits. Ah. Does that mean that questioning the Holocaust is OK? That questioning when to torture is OK? Let’s put it this way: That there are questioners isn’t the offence and never ought to be. The motives behind the questions will usually be quite revealing of why the questions are posed to start with — and whether the questioner is a fanatic hiding behind the right to question, or a genuine inquirer interested in testing whatever dogmas.

Regarding torture, Ménard’s comments didn’t strike me as horrific as Sophia interpreted them once I took a step that put me in a torturer’s shoes. What if I was personally implicated, at all levels? What then? An exchange between Sophia and me follows, beginning with my response to her initial post.

Sophia... In the context of what Menard was talking about--Daniel Pearl's wife looking to save him--I have to ask myself: given a similar situation, with someone in my family in danger, would I stop at anything to free him or her? Of course not. At absolutely nothing. Someone is endangering my wife, my son, my daughter: I strike, if I can, without a thought to ethical concerns. My only concern is to save them (I say all this of course hoping first that the situation would never arise, and second that, should it arise, I would have the courage of my words). But I make a difference between what an individual can and will do in the face of such endangerments, and what a government may and may not do in the name of individuals. Menard's comments are more nuanced than they're made to appear.


My son asked me this question yesterday. What would I do if he is the one who is kidnapped ?
It is evident that nobody can assume, in advance, what her or his reaction will be. All we can speak of in advance is in term of principles and not actual reactions.

We can never leave the world of ideas when it comes to Torture. Are we allowed to do ourselves justice ? That was my answer to my son. Because by endorsing individual justice, even in the most extreme conditions, not only we are denying others justice but we are discrediting institutional justice. Now that's an interesting aspect of this dilemma. Why is it that Marianne Pearl, Robert Ménard and the US administration, should resort to torture of kidnappers family members in order to liberate Daniel Pearl, and at the same time, they would not be allowed to do so by law, even implicitly, if the kidnappers were US citizens ? Does this mean that penal Justice does not apply when a crime is committed on a foreign soil. Does this mean that only some people should feel entitled to breach law and not others (in this case the Afghans) ? The Geneva convention was conseived to solve such a case. To make people equal before Justice in case of wars.

There is also this vague concept of a humanitarian war. How do you treat a resistance to an armed 'Humanitarian' intervention on a foreign soil ? A crime punished by the law of war or by the law of the country in which it happens. In either cases there are institutions who treat this matter. But by keeping the concept of 'Humanitarian' armed intervention vague from a legal point of view, we are weakening both national and international Justice.

Because if you can object that this is not about Justice, but about saving the life of someone and that action is needed and one cannot wait for Justice and legal proceedings, I would answer you that if the laws of these new wars (the 'humanitarian' intervention wars) were more clear, we wouldn't have to face so many kidnappings and beheadings as they happened and continue tohappen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Terrorism and the War on terror, as it is practised, have created an irreversibly damaging void in matters of Justice and Law, and only criminal savagery is filling this void on both sides.

And no, if my son were to be kidnapped, I would not authorise Torture of the family of his kidnappers, and I told him so. I would not allow their barbarism to reach my conscience. I would try to speak to their conscience, even if they have none, although Icannot assume 100% what will be my actual reaction in such a case.

Sophia... I still make a distinction between authorizing torture and actually conducting it. In my earlier comment I meant to personalize the situation: if it was me ansd my family, I would, I think, I even hope, find myself incapable of resisting the urge or the means of becoming the torturer myself--not authorizing torture or requesting it, but actually conducting it, if the case was such (as outlandish as this sounds) that here in front of me was the slime responsible for my family's harm. I might equally hope, but not as strongly, that those authorities in charge would be the ones to stop me from going that far: the human impulse, even the humane impulse, is such that at the most personal level, when one's own family is in harm's way, there is no distinction between one's family and one's own soul and limbs. None at all. Theory is out the window. But again, this here is all theory, too. If the case arose, I could just as well prove to be the yellowest coward on the planet, hiding behind those very opposite theories of humanitarian ethics to justify my inaction.


Thanks fort he comment again. It was first you who highlighted the context in which Ménard gave his position on torture; authorising torture to save someone. Now you are making a distinction between authorising or doing it in a kind of self defense, and I agree with your distinction but this moves us away from Ménard's context.
Torturing or killing for self defense to save a loved one, like lets say someone holds in front of you a knife on the throat of your child, is stil different however from direct self defense when someone is directly attacked. There is a third party between you and the attacker, which is the victim. I am ready to admit the similarity between oneself and the victim only in the case of a child because the child is not completely individuated and capable and responsible entirely for her self defense. That does not mean that we should not rescue others when they are adults and hold hostages because they are capable of defending themselves, but the term of self defense is not legally accepted in this case.

The core question is do I have morally the right to torture family members of the kidnapper or the kidnapper himself in order to save someone else, being an adult or a child ? Because there are no real life situations in which this question may arise when you are held hostage yourself. My answer is that the judicial system in opur own countries makes such an action morally wrong and unlawful. So why should it be morally right and lawful, and wispered on radio stations à demi-mot, when it is applied on a foreign soil ? You did not answer this aspect.

This is not about cowardice or fake humanitarian values. This is about justice and the moral repulsion an ordinary man might feel at killing someone.

I might, after all, be able to kill to save my child, but I will be morally and psychologically broken and I will have to account for my action before the law. Why shouldn't I have to answer before the law when this action is performed in a foreign country ? None of this was considered in Ménard's half confession. He was just asking himself the wrong questions in my opinion.

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