Children and the Aims of Torture

by Brendan Lalor

Neil Mackay, of Scotland’s Sunday Herald, reports that “coalition forces are holding more than 100 children in jails such as Abu Ghraib. Witnesses claim that the detainees — some as young as 10 — are also being subjected to rape and torture.” Furthermore, British and German television sources, among others, indicate that detained children have been tortured in front of their parents to coerce parents’ compliance with interrogators.

Torturing adults is morally bad enough, not to mention in violation of international law and of treaties which the U.S. has signed.

But who could stoop even lower, to torture a child as a means of manipulating parents? An only half-way plausible utilitarian justification of child torture might run thus: a greater number of lives will probably be saved by the devilishly gathered intelligence. (Almost every party to this debate admits that probability of extracting good, life-saving information from torturees is among the morally compelling considerations — perhaps a necessary condition of any morally justified case of torture, if there is such a thing.)

But the intelligence value of detainees has been pretty poor overall. For instance, according to the Los Angeles Times (4 Aug 2004), “the inmates who were abused and sexually humiliated last year at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were of little or no intelligence value to the United States.” Also, a New York Times report on Guantanamo found “that government and military officials have repeatedly exaggerated both the danger the detainees posed and the intelligence they have provided.” Worse, the Red Cross reported that between 70 and 90 per cent of Iraqi detainees were “arrested by mistake.”

It might be that the child torturers are simply misinformed about the value of the “intelligence” they gather or about the relevance of their detainees to the “war on terror.” But not only is it hard to imagine excusing torturers for overlooking facts so morally important to their decision to engage in child torture; it’s hard to imagine competent people overlooking these facts at all.

But perhaps the torturers do not see these facts as morally important. This possibility is discussed by retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff. Perhaps the torturers have been desensitized by a system that dehumanizes detainees so that torturers no longer think of them as having value. Detainees — innocent or not — are hostile “others.” Indeed, after the military learned during World War II that “only about fifteen per cent of American riflemen in combat had fired at the enemy,” Dan Baum explains, it undertook a ?Revised Program of Instruction,? aimed at numbing not just interrogators, but troops en masse, to the killing of fellow human beings.

If such systematic desensitization is the correct account of the torturers’ actions, then the claim that war is a viable path to peace is even more dubious than is commonly appreciated. The deep damage to the character of soldiers and of the cheering public, combined with the hatred and pain left behind by war, profoundly undermine peace. Nothing underscores the depth of the assault on a culture of peace better than the depravity of child torture and the empty, disingenuous justifications of those who approve and perpetrate it.

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