Sunday, November 05, 2006
A Mountebank's Progress: how a sardonic critic of New Labour came to embrace torture. posted by Richard SeymourNick Cohen has set a new low in his slow, fawning creep around the ankles of the Anglo-American ruling class. We have to deport terrorist suspects - whatever their fate, he says today. There is no question of there being an argument: there are anecdotes and faint analogies and quack patriotic history and assurances about what "everyone" says, but beyond that nothing. Cohen's piece is merely another step in his shedding of the liberal chrysalis and his emergence as a puff-faced reactionary ranter, and I use it here as a foil for looking at some of the issues involved.
Take the instance of Magnus Gäfgen, a law student suspected of the kidnapping of Jakob von Metzler, an 11-year-old boy. He knew the whereabouts of the boy, but refused to tell. He was threatened with torture, and only then divulged. Cohen insisted at the time that this should make people reconsider their opposition to torture, but nevertheless still waffled and drew the conclusion that even this apparently stark case hadn't ended all that well (the boy was already dead), and that opponents of torture should be prepared to argue against its use in all circumstances. There was considerable denial in this case at the time: the police chief in question had threatened to inflict pain under medical supervision, but refused to call it torture - the legal establishment agreed, and the conviction which the officer in question received for the threat was both negligible and an embarrassment to the magistrate who laid it on him. The measures threatened would certainly pass under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, but the charge against the officer did not mention the word torture. Daschner's subordinates understood that torture was involved, and some had tried to suggest other measures (confronting the suspect with the relatives of the missing boy, for instance), but he was vehement in his insistence on the use of torture. In this way, a precedent was set for torture and denial. Any officer who seriously threatens or in fact carries out torture has been shown that he need expect no worse than a slap on the wrist, an indictment on a misdemeanour offense.
Cohen now believes that "torture will be all over the news in the coming weeks and, as in the Daschner affair, I suspect it is going to be hard to say automatically that what the authorities want to do is wrong". It will be hard for supporters of torture to say this, it is true. Equally, it will be hard for apologists for state power to say this. But why should anyone else find it hard? Because "for the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary." And Cohen plays Cassandra to the liberal chorus: "I don't think people realise how unparalleled this change is." "Everyone" always laments how London became "Londonistan" (do they? did it?), but no one realises that it was the old liberal assumptions about refugees that allowed this state of affairs to come about.
It's so unfair: if MI5 says someone is a "a threat to national security", "he can't be locked up because the law lords have ruled that internment is illegal". Further, "evidence from his native country that he is a member of a banned organisation can't be used against him because it may have been obtained by torture, and he can't be deported because he may be tortured back home." So, having heard hints from the Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile, "independent" reviewer of terrorism legislation and "anything but a New Labour stooge", that the government may drop the ban on deporting suspects to countries where they may be tortured, Cohen reconciles himself to the deportation and torture of asylum seekers on grounds of MI5 say-so.
Carlile is, of course, the man who recommended prolonged control orders, and legislation to bring Britain into line with the USA Patriot Act. "Terrorism" in the definition he supports (that of the Terrorism Act 2000) includes the threat or use of violence against states and not only civilians - so dissident Egyptians, insurgent Kurds, rebels against the Saudi monarchy etc all can and have been targeted under this legislation. Most of those held under internment when it was legal, as Cohen wishes it still was, have not been charged with any offense, and most of those who have were charged with unrelated offenses.
It is worth reviewing briefly the kinds of powers that the government has already arrogated to itself. The Terrorism Act 2000 not only proscribed a number of organisations which pose no threat to the UK, but actually deemed destruction of property a terrorist offense. Rolling in fields of GM crops would therefore be terroristic. During the firefighters' strike in late 2002, it was argued by some right-wing commentators that the activity would qualify as terrorism under the laws. Legal advice at the time supported this contention. The Civil Contingencies Bill, supposedly an anti-terrorist measure, allows people to be imprisoned for any activity "causes or may cause disruption to: (a) the activities of Her Majesty's Government; (b) the performance of public functions; (c) the activities of banks or other financial institutions." Protests, strikes, anything you like could be covered under such a definition. The Immigration, Asylum & Nationality Bill allows the Home Secretary to deprive anyone of citizenship if he feels it is "conducive to the public good". The Terrorism Act 2006 makes it an offense to call for the active defense of Chechnyans and Palestinians under military occupation. On top of the expansive legal powers the government is perpetually awarding itself, there are illegal activities to consider: such as the complicity in CIA torture flights, and, as Craig Murry has revealed, the willingness to rely on evidence obtained by torture.
In short, the government is larded with powers that it does not need if the aim were only to prevent criminal activity, such as attempted terrorist attacks. It would be stupendously simple to legally detain those who pose a threat: produce the evidence, and try them. It won't do to pretend that the government cannot produce the evidence because it may have been obtained by torture, because if the only evidence available is likely to have been obtained by torture, then it really isn't good enough, because evidence obtained through torture is generally horseshit. Secondly, it is totally untrue that the government cannot use evidence from regimes which may have used torture, as we shall see. Yet, producing evidence and trying people is precisely where the government runs into trouble. As the bogus 'ricin plot' showed, it prefers to fabricate evidence and impose control orders in a politically convenient fashion. The alleged plot was used to prove that Saddam Hussein was sending out terrorist poisoners across the world, and four men became patsies for an outrageous government fix-up. The government tried to deport them, of course, without much success as yet. Now, guess what: the information that was used to try them was obtained by the "interrogation" by the brutal Algerian security services of a man named Mohammed Meguerba, someone the Algerian government accuses of terrorist offenses. The "evidence" was terrifying if you believed it, but predictably, his information was utterly implausible.
In order to proceed from being an acerbic liberal critic of New Labour to being one of its most reactionary defenders, you only need to start by persuading yourself that there is something called 'totalitarianism', and that issuing from this sui generis movement is an undifferentiated phenomenon known as 'Islamism' which is irreducibly responsible for genocidal massacres (so that Hassan Hanafi is no different to Osama bin Laden, who in turn is much the same as Ayatollah Khameini, himself a blood-brother of Omar el-Bashir, the latter in secret alliance with Hamas and the MEK...), that it is sending its adherents to kill in the UK for no other reason that They Hate Our Freedoms, and that the government is if anything too liberal and too enfeebled by its democratic outlook, its hostility to torture, its excessive sweetness to immigrants. You have to believe that torture is not only legitimate, but a necessary and effective way of obtaining evidence, that MI5 is a reliable source on 'threats' to the UK, that the government has a useable definition of 'terrorism', that it does not detain whom it in fact does detain, that it cannot use evidence that it in fact does use, that it cannot try whom it in fact does try etc. You have to absolve yourself of the duty to analyse properly and be willing to perceive what is contrary to every indication provided by reality.
Anyway, here is a documentary from Peter Oborne on the ricin plot fabrications: