Let me be unfashionable for a change. There are reports – and I stress that I can only go on what read and hear in the media – that the waterboarding which the U.S. has acknowledged went on in Guantanamo Bay eventually led it to get sufficient information which led them to Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad. (I supposed in keeping with the rather lurid accounts of the operation I should talk of Bin Laden’a ‘lair’, but what the hell.) So, say some, it was all for the best: we got him, Bin Laden is now dead and so in some circumstances and given that waterboarding is more or less a form of torture, using torture during interrogation might be justified.
Well, up to a point Lord Copper.
Just as you can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’, nor can there be circumstances in which a principle – in this case the principle that a civilised people does not resort to tortures – can be temporarily abandoned in certain circumstances. At the very least claiming as much is a logical nonsense. A principle is a principle, and a cheese-pared principle is dead in the water almost as soon as you decided to cheese-pare. I suppose it all goes back to that old Dick and Dora philosophical problem, a favourite with earnest sixth-formers throughout the world, as to whether or not the ends justify the means. But I’m not going into that here except to say as far as I am concerned: never.
Then there are the ‘details’ which emerged about how Bin Laden died. Initial reports were that he died a coward’s death, cowering behind his wife while returning fire on the US Navy Seals. Now, just over a day later, we get a different story and a claim that the initial account was given ‘in the confusion of battle’. His wife, it seems, wasn’t even in the room when he was found by the Seals, and the guy was gunned down in cold blood. Executed on the spot. Serves him right, you will say, the bastard was responsible for the deaths of many thousands. But again I demure. I will concede that the logistics of getting him out of Pakistan to face trial made such an exercise very difficult indeed, though, it has to be said, not completely impossible: the Seals got out, I notice, with Bin Laden’s body, so it might have been possible with the chap bound hand and foot rather than as a piece of dead meat. But it comes down to whether or not our principles on which our ‘civilisation’ is based are as important to us as we like to pretend they are.
We say that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, so when did ‘everyone’ stop meaning ‘everyone’ and start meaning ‘those we would like to have a fair trial’? I can’t accept that Bin Laden was so evil that the Nazis we caught, and Milosevic and that guy from Liberia were not quite as evil as him, and thus deserved a trial but he didn’t. That, m’lud, is 24-carat bollocks. As I say, you can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’. If you espouse a principle, you are obliged to stick with it through thick and thin. In this case I would have preferred a little honesty: a memorandum which stated simply ‘we went out to kill him and that’s what we did’.
. . .
Something else which disturbed me – and several others her in Old Blighty – was the rampant triumphalism of many Americans who took to the streets and chanted ‘USA, USA’ when the news came through that Bin Laden had been killed while defending himself or, as we now know, murdered in cold blood. The surprise was that those celebrating didn’t fire off rifles with abandon, but I assume they rather feared that if they did that kind of thing, the authorities would mistake them for an Afghan wedding party and bomb them to kingdom come.
We Brits don’t like triumphalism. We really don’t. And it rather rankled that we were and are expected to share in our American cousins sorrow over 9/11, but not only did the US of A not seem to share our sorrow when British citizens were murdered by the IRA, but the IRA bombers were partly financially sustained by money raised in America. Look, chaps, that did go down rather badly, don’t you know.