This is the photo from Abu Zubaydah’s Wikipedia entry. He’s the detainee George Bush wouldn’t hesitate to torture again. The eye patch – straight from Pirates of the Caribbean – makes him look particularly villainous. Wikipedia tells us he lost his left eye in CIA custody. Maybe the eye patch is his medal.
There are two schools of thought on torture: one believes that it works in breaking down the cell structure of terrorist organizations; the other that torture doesn’t work, that you will often be misled by information gained under duress.
Ultimately however, more important than either of those discussions (and beside the fact that torture is immoral and illegal), torture as a policy is bound to fail, bound to be counterproductive, because what you are really trying to do in counter-insurgency is de-legitimize the enemy, to gain the support of the people that you seek to defend… and the use of torture defeats that most important objective.
These conversations usually begin by someone saying if there is a nuclear bomb about to go off in Washington DC and by torturing you could prevent that, would you do it? And everyone is supposed to say “yes”. But it never happens that way. And once you begin down the path to the Dark Side it’s easy to justify lesser and lesser reasons. The threshold drops and eventually you find you have foregone the strategic high ground that you wanted because word leaks out that you’re doing it, and you lose all moral authority and popular support.
On a practical level, a sophisticated organization will structure its cells so that one cell doesn’t know about the other cell. So you can torture someone to death, as the US did, but they still can’t tell you about the other cell because they don’t know about it. And a sophisticated organization will train their people to deal with interrogation. They will tell them to first say things that are of low value and can be corroborated, so they are talking; and then to say thing of higher value that can’t be corroborated, so the interrogator won’t really know whether they are cooperating or not.
What kind of people can torture others?
My dad was a Colonial Policeman in Palestine, Trinidad and Nyasaland. He was highly-principled and a brilliant counter-terrorist. He couldn’t bear to beat me as a child. He firmly believed torture doesn’t work. So I am sure he never knowingly tortured anyone. And yet our strengths are our weaknesses and therein lies his tragedy. For it was certainty that made him self-righteous and, ultimately, vulnerable to manipulation. I know this because I see the same failing in myself.
For in a lengthy chapter, entitled Essays in Unorthodoxy (sic), of his book Just the Job, my dad describes with great pride – even glee – actions that nowadays would be classed as torture (think of the practice of pushing blind-folded detainees out of a helicopter hovering a few feet from the ground to scare them into talking). The story was recounted as praiseworthy in his obituary.
I decided to have an all-out drive to collect as many rebel firearms as possible from the villages in the area.
For some time I had been concentrating on gathering, through my band of agents, every scrap of information as to makes, types and owners of firearms in the various villages, all of which we carefully sorted and recorded.
The time had now come to put this information to good use; nearly every night we cordoned a village and, at dawn, assembled the inhabitants on the threshing floor. Each male would be asked his name, which would be checked with our list and with the informers who were present. If a man were known to possess a rifle he would be told to go with a police escort to fetch it, the alternative being detention for an indefinite period under the Emergency Regulations which were then in force. When we were able to describe the firearm in some detail, specify occasions on which he had used it, and some- times even quote the manufacturer’s numbers to him, the owner would generally throw up the sponge and go off to dig up his rifle from its hiding-place on the outskirts of the village. Sometimes, of course, our information was false, or the owner had since disposed of his weapon; in which case he would be taken in for further enquiry.
The action we took at Yabad village early on in these proceedings did much to convince the inhabitants of the district that if we asked for their rifles it was as well to surrender them without argument.
I heard well in advance that Yabad would be difficult; when they learned that we were being successful in collecting rifles in other villages, the people of Yabad got together to plan what they would do when their turn came, as they knew it assuredly would. They decided that, whatever happened, not one of them would admit to having a firearm, let alone surrender it. The first two or three we called upon might be unlucky and get a rough passage, but they would stand fast and take what was coming to them. After all, we couldn’t take the whole village to prison. Well content with their plans, the villagers sat back to await our arrival.
All this was relayed to me through my agents, and I, too, did some planning.
In due course we cordoned Yabad at night and moved in at dawn. All the inhabitants, male and female, were assembled on the threshing floor.
By prearranged signal, Albert identified to me one of the ringleaders in the plot to defy the authorities—a young man who was known to have a good rifle of which we knew the make and number. For the purposes of this story we will call him Mustapha Yassin, though that was not his real name.
When all were squatting in the usual Arab manner, I went forward with the Mukhtar beside me to address the assemblage. In Arabic I told them that our mission was a peaceful one, and that if the village co-operated they would have nothing to fear.
I then produced my notebook, called out the name of Mustapha Yassin as though it were the first on the list. I looked up expectantly, but there was no movement among the villagers, no sign to indicate that the man I had named was present. I turned to the Mukhtar and asked him, so that all could hear, to indicate Mustapha Yassin. He looked round vaguely, shifting his weight from foot to foot, obviously discomfited. He mumbled something into his beard and, on being pressed, stated, with no conviction, that Mustapha Yassin was not present.
“Oh! Is that so?” I said, adding: “I will show you Mustapha Yassin.” I looked carefully round the rows of swarthy faces, and then threaded my way towards the man I wanted.
“Get up and follow me,” I told him, and led him back to the spot where the Mukhtar was intently studying the dust at his feet. “This is Mustapha Yassin,” I told him, devoutly praying that Albert had made no mistake. “Go and sit down!” With a look of relief, the Mukhtar went and joined his villagers.
I turned my attention to Mustapha. “You have a Belgian rifle in good condition, No. 66813, which you used when your gang attacked Arrabeh village on the eighteenth of last month.” Mustapha opened his mouth to protest his innocence, but I silenced him with a gesture. “You will now go and bring it here.” Again he started to protest, saying that he had never owned a gun, that he was the most law-abiding citizen in Yabad, and that somebody who was interested in his wife had given this false information against him in order to get him out of the way.
This time I heard him out, then once more told him to go and get his rifle.
Once more the protestations. I said to him, “Mustapha, from the villagers of Yamoun and Kfar Rai, from Arrani and Meithalun, we have collected their rifles. Do you think you can succeed where they have failed? Listen carefully to what I have to say. If you do not go now and bring me back your rifle I shall kill you.”
He looked at me doubtfully. Was I bluffing or did I really mean it? His eyes searched my face, and I did my best to maintain an air of stern implacability and to hide my own doubts as to the wisdom of what I was about to do. To threaten and then to back down before the whole village would be a sign of weakness, and would result in considerable loss of prestige. I must know that, so what really were my intentions? I gave him a moment to consider the position, watching the uncertainty in his expression disappear as he remembered the plan for unity and non-co-operation made by his fellow villagers.
“Well?” I asked, and again he started on his story.
Drawing my automatic from my pocket, I swung him round and pushed him with my left hand towards a nearby house. We went behind it out of sight of the villagers squatting 30 yards away.
The sound of my first shot and the blood-chilling scream which followed it reverberated round the hills and put the village pigeons into the air in a panic.
I fired again, and the scream ended abruptly.
I walked back to the police and soldiers standing in front of the villagers, replacing the magazine in my pistol with a full clip as I did so.
On my instructions, two of my men got a stretcher from an armoured car and went with me round behind the house where I had taken Mustapha. After a few moments they re- appeared carrying a stretcher with Mustapha on it. His face was covered with his own hatta, but his fellows could identify him by his clothes. As he was carried slowly past the assembled villagers to the armoured car a stifled wail rose from one of the women at the back, as though attempting, with little hope of success, to dispel the electrified silence which hung over the proceedings. The rays of the brilliant sun seemed to lose their heat, and even I felt a cold shiver tingle around my spine.
I supervised the placing of the stretcher and its grisly load in the car and returned to the business in hand.
“Ahmed el Haj Yousef!” I called, and Ahmed el Haj Yousef came forward at once.
“Ahmed,” I said, “I want you to go now and fetch your rifle for me.” I started to give him the details, but he did not need them.
“Na’amya Sidi! Ncfamya Sidif” and off he went, pathetic- ally eager to co-operate and desperately anxious not to share the fate of his predecessor.
I called the next name, and the next, and without hesitation they all went off under police or military escort to do our bidding.
Not all the people on our list were in the village, but all those who were fetched their firearms without demur.
When the last one had returned I fetched Mustapha Yassin from the armoured car; there was an incredulous gasp from the villagers at this apparent resurrection of the dead, which turned first into a titter and then into a wave of hearty laughter at the realisation that they had been completely hoaxed.
The Arab, a past master of intrigue himself, has a keen sense of humour and can always appreciate a joke, even when it’s on him.
The noise subsided somewhat as I turned once more to my erstwhile victim. “Oh, Mustapha!” I said, pointing to the pile of rifles at our feet. “I was right in all these cases. Do you still wish to say that I was wrong in yours?” There was a moment’s hesitation, and I feared that perhaps he alone would still call my bluff. But then, to my relief, a voice from the crowd—probably the owner of one of the rifles already surrendered—called out to him to fetch his rifle. Others joined in, and the battle was ours. With a grin, Mustapha acknowledged defeat and went off to collect what was the best rifle of the day’s haul.
My two thugs, Albert and Faiz, who had made their way unobtrusively behind the selected house while the villagers were being rounded up, had played their part in our little tragedy most effectively. Albert’s scream had been so realistic that, although I was expecting it, it had made me jump almost out of my skin, and the way in which he cut it off dead when I fired my second shot into the ground was nothing short of an artistic masterpiece; Faiz’s task had been to keep our victim quiet and prevent him giving the game away, which he had accomplished by a combination of fearsome grimaces and whispered blood-curdling threats as to what would really hap- pen to him if he as much as uttered a word or moved a finger before he was safely hidden in the armoured car.
I was greatly relieved that this—this experiment in psychological warfare?—had gone off so well, though after the reprimand I acquired by my well-meaning and successful efforts to restore the tarbush to normal use I took good care to see that the methods we had adopted on this occasion were not reported to Jerusalem.
The G.O.C. Palestine, General Sir Robert Haining, in a letter written about me to the Inspector-General of Police on July 13th, 1939, when he was handing over his command, said, among other things:
“… With the Border Regiment first, and later with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, he has been on the closest of terms, and his flair for obtaining information and for keeping in close contact with the people of the country has resulted in the surrendering of a perfect stream of fire- arms which has frankly surprised me by its size and continuity. . . .”
Perhaps he would have been even more surprised if he had known how we did it!
Certainly our methods proved successful, for I see from my diary (which is by no means a complete record) that over 300 rifles, 40 pistols and 133 shotguns were seized by police and military in the Jenin area during the months of June and July, 1939. Some of these were captured during actions with gangs, but the majority came into our possession solely as a result of the methodical collection and effective use of informers and information. I would be the last person to suggest that we had denuded the area of all its firearms, but there is no doubt that our activities did make a very big hole in the total rebel fire-power. And it was gratifying to know that our seizures in Jenin easily exceeded the total seized from the rest of the country put together during the same period.
Nietzsche observed that the world can be a brutal place, a place where people gain power not by being wise and respected, but by dominating and taking advantage of others. So, what are we going to do about it? For Nietzsche, one of the necessary things we must do to free ourselves from this dominance over body and mind is to recognize that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are just words, words that have been used by the powerful to justify what they do – their ‘just wars’ against the ‘evil foe’, while that foe invariably preaches the same story in reverse, making us the villain.
To say that someone is ‘evil’ is to say that they have no rational motivation for what they do, that we should not attempt to understand them, but should oppose them without thinking about why. It’s a powerful tool to maintain denial of reality, and so, as individuals, if we refuse to accept definitions of what is good or evil as they are handed down by those in power, we will have taken the first step to freeing ourselves from mental tyranny.
I am unconvinced by dad’s:
incredulous gasp from the villagers at this apparent resurrection of the dead, which turned first into a titter and then into a wave of hearty laughter at the realisation that they had been completely hoaxed.
The Arab, a past master of intrigue himself, has a keen sense of humour and can always appreciate a joke, even when it’s on him.
Laughter signified the villagers great relief, no more. And “The Arab”? Dad’s clumsy compliment today seems loaded with racism and condescension.
My father struggled with this to his end.