Hague should address Human cost of Bombing, not just Torture
William Hague's recently announced inquiry into the UK government's alleged collusion in torture is a move that few observers will find surprising. It serves to draw a clear line between Hague's foreign office and that of his predecessor, David Miliband, as Clive Stafford Smith noted on Cif recently. It also addresses one of the main grievances associated with the old Labour government, which is the perception they sidelined their moral convictions to appease the US in policies relating to the "war on abstract nouns" (as some wits have named it).
The inquiry is a political move, but the negative cost of the "war on terror" can be measured in moral terms as well as politically. It remains to be seen whether Hague's inquiry will address that in any meaningful way. Personally, I think not.
In his 2005 book The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues that torture is less immoral than aerial bombing, on the basis that bombs kill and maim hundreds of civilians, whereas torture only affects a few people strongly suspected of being terrorists, or of being in possession of vital intelligence. It is also non-lethal, and temporary. He asks: "What, after all, is 'collateral damage' but the inadvertent torture of innocent men, women and children?"
The question that naturally follows is: if we are prepared to accept collateral damage as a necessary evil to achieve a goal, with all the loss of innocent life that implies, then why are we not prepared to accept torture as a means of advancing towards the same goal? The implications are deeply unsettling but the logic appears sound. Harris follows it through and concludes that torture is, in fact, justified in certain circumstances, including the "war on terror". My own view is that aerial bombing is a blunt, inappropriate tool for fighting "terror", and therefore I personally can't see how bombing or torture could be justified in this context.
If applied to any real-world scenario, Harris's theory quickly falls down. The high level of secrecy around a case such as that of Binyam Mohamed, for example, makes it impossible for a member of the public to draw their own conclusions about the moral implications of his ordeal. Was he an innocent bystander? A terrorist mastermind? It requires a large leap of trust to believe that his handlers in Guantánamo Bay made their judgements on a sound ethical footing – they may have done, but we can't know. It's not a leap of faith that I would be comfortable making.
In the light of the terrible realities of torture (which I can only just begin to imagine), it may seem immoral to pursue Harris's line of thought at all. However, one possible benefit of doing so is to achieve some sort of parity between the way we perceive torture and the way we perceive more acceptable methods of warfare – the gruesome details of a bombing raid are, for some reason, less widely discussed and condemned than the realities of torture.
One explanation for this is intent – collateral damage is by definition unintentional, whereas torture is not. However, the inevitable human cost of bombing raids is known beforehand, so in real terms, how is accepting that cost different from intending it?
The distant, impersonal nature of bombing also dulls the impact if its horrors. Imagining yourself in the place of a bomber pilot, or a drone operator thousands of miles away from the target, is a much less uncomfortable image than imagining yourself in a torture dungeon. Harris terms this the "disassociation between what is most shocking and what is most harmful". It seems to me that Hague is utilising this tendency for political gain, in seeking to address the most shocking at the expense of the most harmful.
Current estimates place the number of Iraqi civilian casualties since 2003 at around 100,000. There are no reliable figures for Afghan civilian casualties, but it's safe to say the number will run into the tens of thousands. By contrast, the number of people allegedly tortured is measured in dozens. I don't mean to imply that the torture allegations should not be fully investigated – of course, they should, and as transparently as possible – but to me it seems perverse to dedicate so much attention to this issue when, in terms of human cost, it is dwarfed by the (still mounting) number of people killed by accepted methods of war. That should be Hague's, and our, main concern when it comes to accounting for our foreign policy errors under the last government.