The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Extreme Methods

The New York Times reports that Canada, a strong opponent of any kind of “torture,” has modified its treatment of prisoners captured in Afghanistan:
The Canadian military secretly stopped transferring prisoners to Afghanistan’s government in November after Canadian monitors found evidence that they were being abused and tortured.

The suspension, which began Nov. 5, was disclosed in a fax sent by government lawyers to Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which are seeking to block the prisoner transfers.

The government’s internal concerns about detainees is also at odds with Canadian officials’ repeated public statements that the Afghan government does not engage in systematic torture.

“The denials and political posturing and name-calling that have gone on over this at various points is very disheartening when all along there’s been this information,” said Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International’s Canadian branch.

Despite the suspension, Mr. Neve and Jason Gretl, president of the British Columbia association, said their lawyers would appear at the Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa on Thursday to seek an injunction blocking more transfers.

It’s reasonable to assume that if torture is being conducted by the Afghans, it’s the real thing, resulting in permanent physical harm, disfigurement or worse. It is not the “torture” (e.g., blindfolding, nudity, loud music, and yes, even waterboarding) perpetrated by the US.

If Canada conscientiously objects to the Afghan’s treatment of Taliban prisoners (by the way, that’s the same Taliban that cuts off the hands of small children who accept medical treatment from Western doctors), their policy is completely appropriate.

However, it does lead to an interesting ethical dilemma (hat tip: The Belmont Club).

Should Canada, or any other country that objects to the use of extreme measures to extract information that may help avert terrorist attacks, refuse to accept information elicited by these measures?

For example, let’s assume that a foreign intelligence service uses torture to learn of an impeding catastrophic attack planned for Toronto. The foreign service contacts the Canadians, who are well aware that this intelligence service uses torture as a method, and tells them that they have pertinent information about an impending attack. Should the Canadians refuse to discuss the information with them, citing their conscientious objection to the use of extreme methods of intelligence gathering?

If they refuse the information, they put their own citizens at extreme risk, a scenario so implausible, it’s difficult to believe that any government would do it. But if they take the information, they’re really saying that they’re perfectly willing to accept the fruits of extreme methods but are unwilling to sanction them. They argue that the extreme methods that will save them should never have been carried out in the first place.

Life is never simple.