Thursday, March 30, 2006

Trying to avoid simplicity

I'll admit right up front that part of the reason Michael Ignatieff's candidacy for the Liberal party leadership bothers me so is that it is the Liberal party. The history of the words "Liberal" and "liberalism" are proud ones, and having either associated with the abomination that is the Iraq War is simply depressing.

Now I hear that Ignatieff is going to announce publicly that he does not support torture, "coercive interrogation", nor would he have sent Canadian soldiers to fight in Iraq against the public will. I suppose I should be happy, but instead it's profoundly depressing that a leading intellectual and potential leader of a national political party should have to reiterate his belief in the high-level concepts of "torture is bad" and "war is bad too."

Red Tory has accuses me of reducing the issue to "cartoonish and simplistic levels" and calls this reprehensible. I agree that reducing the issue to a simplistic or cartoonish level would be reprehensible. However, we also need to resist the urge to overcomplicate this debate. This is what I think Ignatieff is doing, and it only serves to lower the bar for acceptable behaviour in a democracy.

I was deliberate in my use of the words sub-human and non-human for a reason. Not because I think the US is going to start depopulating Iraq so that they can have lebensraum or any Godwin-invoking idea like that. As reprehensible (there's that word again) as I think the US actions (and here I refer specifically to the torture) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba have been, they do not rise to that level.

They do, however, rise to the level of US domestic law, and treaties to which the US is the signatory - most relevantly, the Convention against Torture. The Convention Against Torture in particular is important, as it is a human rights document, not a document concentrating on wartime actions (like the Geneva Conventions.)

The language of the CAT is quite clear - it protects "persons", not exclusively enemy soldiers or any one group. It is a universal document, and it applies to every human being. In short, being protected from torture is every person's right as a human being, not as a citizen or as a soldier. This is why the CAT makes it illegal to extradite persons to countries where they will face torture, even if it is their home country. But we can ask Maher Arar about that.

This shouldn’t be a controversial question, but why are we even considering torture – that is, why did Michael Ignatieff feel compelled to kinda/sorta oppose it? The obvious answer in 9/11 and the threat of terrorism. But even then, why? Terrorism is defined in the criminal code of Canada as well as The US Criminal code. While some people will debate this, the law is clear - terrorists are criminals. In which case they still deserve the protections of domestic law as the accused in the Air India trial did. If not criminals, than they are at least persons under the law, and are therefore protected from torture.

This is the point: We are a liberal democracy, bound by law. No one is seriously suggesting that we legitimize torture of convicted murderers or rapists. Rather, we are talking about the “ticking bomb” scenario, where a suspect is believed to have operational intelligence of an impending attack. The first argument against this scenario is that it is fantasy, born of too many hours spent watching “24”. It is beneath the dignity of an academic or a politician to entertain it seriously. Ignatieff qualifies on both counts.

Secondly, the “nightmare scenario” of a nuclear bomb in a major city fails to pass even Ignatieff’s test of defending liberal democracies. I don’t want to minimize the danger posed by nuclear terrorism (or exaggerate it, for that matter) but the fact remains that no terrorist group has the power to pose existential harm to a national government. As I’ve argued in other contexts, nation-states are incredibly powerful. And those most likely to be attacked by terrorists are among the most powerful in the world. Nevertheless, the conflict between terrorists and liberal democracies is analogous only to one hyena snapping at a pack of lions.

The most important argument is that we are talking about torturing people who have been convicted of no crime. This is antithetical to the very ideas of rule of law, democracy, and human rights. The state has the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but that does not make every use of state violence legitimate.

The only principled way* to justify torture in domestic or international law is to strip people of their rights as human beings, as defined by the CAT and other international and domestic laws. This is quite simply an act of dehumanization. Given that it also obviously makes the victims of torture legally inferior to those criminals and prisoners who are not tortured (such as convicted murderers in Canada) I don't think it is at all "cartoonish" to argue that torture is only possible because the government has defined their victims as sub-human.

(*The unprincipled way to justify torture is to say that the US has the right to interpret the Geneva conventions and the CAT in such a way as to render both documents meaningless. See also: Canada's interpretation of the Kyoto Protocol.)

One of the great, and largely unrecognized, successes of the 20th century was the expansion of the moral force of law in to the realm of international conflict. It has of course been imperfect - international law was powerful enough to protect Americans and British soldiers from the Germans, but not from the Japanese. Nor was it powerful enough to protect the Jews from, well, anyone, including the callous indifference of the Canadian government.

However, because of this unsteady success, we have broadened and deepened the definition of humans as rights-bearing individuals. This is not just a nice thing, it is a Good thing. When the US, or China, or Syria, or Egypt tortures someone, they are doing their part to undermine our common humanity, and to build walls between us – who we can and cannot torture. And while any country that tortures deserves our scorn, only a few torture while being liberal democracies. The very country that has been a beacon to the world is simultaneously doing its part for the darkness.

1 comment:

CuriosityKilledTheCat said...

Nuance as Nemesis.

The flurry of articles for and against Ignatieff, based on his writings and speeches, means he is in the headlines in bloggerdom more than any other candidate right now.

But here is my CatForecast:

• His newness, coupled with his nuanced positions, added to the fact that he is a fresh face in the Liberal Party, will mean he runs for leader as a frontrunner, and will do well on the first ballot.

• But the second ballot will see him fading fast, as Liberals at the convention decide he is not the leader to beat Harper (too much Kerry in the man).

• By the third ballot, he will be signalling to his supporters which person he wishes to be leader.

And this brings us to the inevitable question: Who will Ignatieff choose to support as leader once his own star fades?

Will he choose a practiced politician? Or a fresh face? Or the most intelligent? The one who will appoint him as foreign minister (a post he would fill honour)?

Fairly easy to predict who he will not choose; less easy which one he will choose.