I remember catching a snatch of a wartime-set drama as a child, and though I’ve no idea what it was, one scene that sticks in the memory is of a Gestapo interrogation whereby the unfortunate prisoner has his fingernails pulled out. It unnerved me at the time, for I was instantly convinced it was difficult to imagine anything more painfully horrible; but it seemed part of the post-war narrative that emphasised how cruel the Nazis were and that their cruelty was both unprecedented and hadn’t been surpassed since. I could read of historical battles and be made aware of their undoubted brutality, but distance rendered them less brutal somehow; that the Gestapo had been pulling out fingernails just thirty years previously – and my grandfather had been a POW in East Germany – meant that the anguished screams of the interrogated could almost still be discerned on the North Wind in a way that the cries of the bludgeoned on the battlefield of Hastings couldn’t.
At that time, there was plenty on the news alerting me to the fact that man’s inhumanity to man didn’t end in 1945 – the aftermath of IRA bombs, reports of what Idi Amin kept in his freezer, carved-up corpses in Vietnam etc; but implicit in such gruesome reports was the message that the atrocities of the enemy were what distinguished us from them. I wasn’t to know then that what could be classed as torture techniques were being practiced on IRA suspects by the British Army in Northern Ireland, just as they had been in Kenya twenty years before.
Torture was something associated with ancient history – the rack, the thumbscrew, the iron maiden and the Spanish Inquisition; that was what people did to each other before civilisation intervened, wasn’t it? That’s what we were taught at school, anyway. Hell, there was plenty of it in the sadistic Old Testament, and the Bible was promoted as a design for life at yer average C-of-E school in the 70s. It’s no wonder one grew up thinking that this especially barbaric method of extracting information was a shameful episode in the learning curve of mankind. How was I to know it had never really gone out of fashion? It had merely retreated back to the secret shadows when the Geneva Convention and the United Nations barred it from the open air.
I suppose it wasn’t until the stories started coming out of Iraq that official confirmation finally hit the headlines that we – the ‘Good Guys’ – also indulged in the tactics that the ‘Bad Guys’ had a reputation for. The Axis of Evil was so defined by Bush and Blair in relation to the members of said Axis doing devilish things that we in the West grew out of centuries ago; but, lo and behold, it turns out we were just as bad. The dubious policy of ‘rendition’ was despicable enough; as to what was done to those unfortunate enough to be secretly bundled onto a plane from MI6 or CIA Airlines and flown to Libya, most are still awaiting an admission it actually happened, let alone an apology from the guilty parties.
As a method of getting to the truth, torture is inherently flawed. By inflicting pain upon a captive, the gradual desperation in them for the pain to end becomes so overwhelming that they will eventually tell you precisely what you want to hear, whether it’s the truth or not. How is that getting to the truth? Bloody Mary may have got the answers she wanted from the Protestants thar were subsequently burned alive in public, but it was always a foregone conclusion once they were dispatched to the in-house torturer at the Tower. Four-hundred and odd years later, the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad beat confessions out of a chosen half-dozen behind closed doors, another foregone conclusion once they’d been fingered; the Birmingham Six were spared their lives, but still lost sixteen years of those lives behind bars – all thanks to effective torture.
Donald Trump (yes, him again) added to his litany of contentious pre-election statements during his first week in the White House, with perhaps the dumbest being his assertion that he believes torture is…well…basically okay. He made this announcement before appointing his Secretary of Defence. According to Mr President, General James Mattis is opposed to torture and by handing ‘Mad Dog’ the post, he apparently gives the General the power to act independently of Trump’s own personal opinion on the subject. Trump clarified this when the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg became the latest TV politico auditioning for Paxman’s size nines by trying to cram half-a-dozen questions into one during the press conference after the Donald met Theresa May. But does that mean the US will actually adhere to international law when it comes to this particularly vile practice now?
New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall proved he’s as thick as his Scouse accent by concurring with Trump’s viewpoint on torture, though it could simply have been a Tim Farron-like attempt to remind the public he’s not dead yet. Either way, anyone who imagines Radical Islamic Terrorism can be vanquished by water-boarding a few Muslims from Tottenham or Burnley in order for them to vindicate their kidnapping by confessing all deserves a stint on the comfy chair.
© The Editor