31 October, 2003


The fear of terrorism is being mobilized to do a lot of things - sell arms, sell Hollywood movies, sell a lot of extravagantly wasteful wars. Covertly, it is also being mobilized to destroy ethical principles that make up the foundation of democratic societies. This was none more evident than last Friday, when a panel on torture after 9/11 was held at the City University of New York in NYC. Should torture, as an interrogation technique, become legal in extreme exceptions like terrorism in democratic societies? The fact that this question was even raised at all makes clear that that the fear of terrorist attacks is a significant factor that is changing the norms of ethical behavior. And it is a fear that is also cleverly being taken advantage of by individuals and organizations to push forward their own authoritarian agendas.

Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, strongly advocated for torture warrants to government officials who could use that to extract information from "ticking bombs" terrorists. The "ticking bomb" scenario, in which a terrorist is known to have information that could potentially save the innocent lives, is the one case in which an exception for torture should be made in a democratic society, Dershowitz said. Dershowitz, whose tour de force includes The Case for Israel, a book whose dust-jacket states that there is no human rights violations against the Palestinians in Israel, said this would make the process "transparent" and "accountable" and minimize the cases of torture currently practiced in the US and around the world.

Thankfully for America and the world, Professor Dershowitz's mediaeval and nutty proposition (what's been going on with the Harvard hiring department these days? Is a self-proclaimed liberal democrat who claims to "trusts no-one" the right person to be heading up the law dept at Harvard?) was greeted with disbelief and a great deal of lively opposition. American liberals, thought to be gasping feebly for breath under the humongous weight of right-wing takeover, can still present a respectful but no-nonsense opposition during these moments.

Michael Posner, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, stuck firmly to his stance - torture was legally, morally and practically unacceptable in contemporary society, and should be examined and prosecuted wherever it occurred. Britain's use of torture against Northern Ireland did not work. "The Five Techniques caused the alienation of many moderate Catholics; 20 years later, the scars remain," he said, quoting a British official. He also quoted from a US military manual that stated that torture was ineffective in extracting information. All European countries have passed laws that prohibit torture. The US had to follow Europe's lead, he said.

Harvey Silvergate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, pointed out that there were moments when even he could imagine using torture. "For instance, if my son was kidnapped and put underground in a box and had three hours of air left, I would probably torture the man myself. But this does not mean I would not expect to be prosecuted for it by the legal institution, and be brought before a jury." Silvergate pointed out that a democracy is based on institutions, and for respect of those institutions. If institutions like the legal system were weakened, democracy would weaken, he said. Legalizing torture, Silvergate said, would let the genie out of the bottle. Security forces would take it as a go-ahead and implement their own rules. If they feared prosecution, they would respect the law. Weak institutions meant a weak democracy, he said.

America has been at the forefront of breathing life into the big bogey of terrorism. Ordinary citizens around the world are now respectably scared of terrorists with bombs and suicidal intentions who commit crazy acts without warning. At the same time, global citizens are less aware of the other bigger and more scarier takeovers - the takeover of democratic principles, ethics, and the right to live without fear - arguably the three most important rights being eroded in this global, psychological warfare against terrorism. Do we have institutions that are strong enough, and citizens that are informed enough, to resist this takeover and to re-create a world where peace is the norm, rather than the exception?

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