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In last month's Prospect, Michael Ignatieff wondered if torture, under some circumstances, may make us safer. The answer is a firm no.

Ignatieff personally rejects torture as a solution. None the less, he opens the door for those with fewer scruples, arguing that “moral prohibition comes at a price” and that those of us who oppose torture should “also be honest enough to admit that we may have a price to pay for our own convictions.” The practical implications of this reasoning mean that his argument deserves a considered response.

Clearly, torture may sometimes persuade people to reveal information they would not otherwise have divulged. But that does not mean that permitting torture might keep us safe.

Ignatieff argues that an absolute ban on torture might prevent our intelligence services from gaining “timely access to information that may save lives.” The “ticking-bomb” scenario, as it is usually known, can seem persuasive. If someone knows of a vast bomb primed to explode in the heart of central London, how could one not torture him, to save thousands of lives? Exposed to reality, however, the hypothetical is no longer so neat. It has damaging consequences for individuals and societies alike.

It is partly a question of the accuracy of statements made under torture. Take the case of the Peruvian student Magdalena Monteza, abducted as an alleged subversive. After being tortured and repeatedly raped by her captors, she admitted to being part of a revolutionary cell. In the film State of Fear, she describes her story: “I’d never had sex before. I was a virgin, 19 years old… I couldn’t take the torture so I decided to sign. I confessed to things I never did… If they had sentenced me to death I wouldn’t have cared.” The Canadian-Briton Bill Sampson was repeatedly tortured in a Saudi jail. Under torture, he admitted to being part of a network responsible for bombings and murder, thus enabling the authorities to pretend that there is no homegrown terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

In the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003, Colin Powell told a “first-hand” story of how Saddam Hussein supported biological and chemical weapons training for al Qaeda. The story, gained from an al Qaeda operative tortured in Egypt, later proved to be untrue. One CIA source was quoted: “This is the problem with using the waterboard [being held under water until you think you will die, known to the Latin American military as the submarino]. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear.”

Moral and practical arguments are inextricably intertwined. If some torture is justifiable in pursuit of the greater good, why not all torture? If the suspected terrorist is too hard a nut to crack, why not torture the man’s wife or daughter? Is that not an acceptable price to pay to save lives?

The simple answer is no. Torture degrades the torturer and those who condone it; acceptance of torture undermines the very foundations—and thus the security—of our society. Rules do matter, even if some of our politicians seem reluctant to confront that truth. Iraq today is a country full of ticking bombs. On the face of it, this would seem to be an obvious case where more torture could help keep everyone safer. If you torture hundreds or thousands of alleged radicals, one might confess where or when the next bomb will be placed. In reality, the shameful use of torture has only helped plunge Iraq into ever deeper instability.

The US administration has not been shy about its abandonment of the rules, based partly on a version of Ignatieff’s argument that “moral prohibition comes at a price.” Cofer Black, CIA head of counter-terrorism, explained that, after 9/11, “the gloves came off.” Those who committed abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere acted as if moral scruples were trumped by what Ignatieff calls “accurate security information, even if collected by dubious means.” In reality, the trampling of the rules has merely encouraged those who believe that mass murder of civilians can be justified, and may have helped give the terrorists fresh recruits. Popular co-operation and tips to the authorities, which security experts agree can play a crucial role in cracking a secretive conspiracy, are, by contrast, more difficult than ever.

The US army intelligence manual is clear: “The use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” This military common sense has been abandoned in the past few years in favour of the brutal, politically driven shortcut. Alberto Mora, until recently general counsel of the US Navy, argues: “Getting the information became the overriding objective. But there was a failure to look more broadly at the ramifications… When you put together the pieces, it’s all so sad.”

The British government has in past years played a key role in combating torture worldwide. And yet it refuses today to confront Washington’s policies, which endanger us all. At home, too, Britain has tried to dodge its commitments—by asserting the right to use torture evidence in court proceedings (only a law lords' ruling forced the government to climb down), by negotiating flimsy agreements for sending people back to countries where they may be tortured, and by seeking to reverse the impact of European court judgments which emphasise that the ban on sending people back to the risk of torture is absolute.

William Hague talks of the “loss of moral authority” which comes from tolerating torture. This loss of moral authority has important implications. Ask Bill Sampson, ask Magdalena Montaleza. Ignatieff is right to reject torture: “We cannot torture, because of who we are.” None the less, if we allow ourselves to be seduced by arguments that torture helps keep us safe, the prospects for the 21st century look bleak.

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