“Torture is the systematic and deliberate infliction of acute pain by one person on another, or on a third person, in order to accomplish the purpose of the former against the will of the latter.” (Amnesty International)
Torture is morally wrong. It’s also ineffective as a means of obtaining information. It corrodes the torturers, the tortured and the societies in which it takes place. That being the case, why has it taken the entire span of human existence for us to realise this, and why – despite almost universal acceptance of international law prohibiting it – does it still take place across the majority of inhabited space on our planet?
Is it because we are more driven by fear than rational thought? Are we as a species less “civilised” than we like to think? Or more civilised than we think, because we’re the only species that deliberately inflicts pain on our peers for purposes other than territorial dominance and sexual supremacy? Or should we be using the term “evolved” rather than civilised?
I don’t know, and I find the subject of torture as disturbing as anyone else who is confronted with evidence of the appalling cruelty that people inflict upon others. I also have no interest in getting into the kind of debate on the subject beloved of philosophy teachers. I have opinions, but more questions than answers.
So here are ten questions we should perhaps ask ourselves when we make sweeping statements on the subject. To some the answers are obvious. To others less so. Most of them lead to more questions.
The questions use as a reference point the definition of torture I quoted above.
Is it wrong?
It surely depends on what we mean by wrong. Do we mean morally wrong? According to what moral framework? A religious framework? Which religions specifically condemn physical punishment? And which religions specifically sanction it? Undoubtedly some religious scriptures can be interpreted as condoning the infliction of pain on others. I leave it to you to figure out which.
Is it effective?
The most common practical argument against torture is that people will say anything to make the pain stop. I wonder. If the information given under duress can be verified as being false, and discovery of the falsehood will result in the certainty of further punishment, is the argument still valid?
Which is more effective, the fear of torture or the act itself?
Perhaps it depends on the certainty that torture will follow as the result of lack of cooperation. If we know that we are about to be tortured, it is an exceptional (or highly motivated) person who is not prepared to go to any lengths to avoid the consequent pain and suffering. So you could argue that yes, in the majority of cases the threat of torture is very effective. So is the fear of the unknown – not knowing what is about to happen to you. Imagination is a very powerful thing.
Can you torture groups as well as individuals?
I would say undoubtedly yes, even if Amnesty’s definition seems to exclude group torture. The random selection of individuals from a group for execution is a time-honoured practice that was used very effectively by the Nazis in World War 2.
Is it wrong to engage with torturers?
Does it not depend on who’s doing the engaging, and for what purpose? If governments ostracise other governments that knowingly employ torture, there wouldn’t be much international dialogue. What large countries don’t use torture in one form or another, at one time or another? International diplomacy is largely a process of the guilty talking to the guilty.
Would you torture to protect your loved ones?
If the answer is yes, then should you judge governments that torture those who threaten citizens that it is under obligation to protect? Would you condone the use of torture in an extreme situation, for example to prevent a nuclear attack on your city? This is the Cheney justification: “our country was under attack – we used any means necessary to defend it”.
Is war a form of torture?
Was the series of assaults on Gaza a form of torture? Was the bombing of Germany and Japan in World War 2 a form of torture? How about the bombing of Vietnam? Is the threat of war a form of torture, given the terror that it instils in populations?
Is there such a thing as non-violent torture?
Is mental cruelty – withdrawal of love, isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, lies, exploitation of personal phobias, bullying, threats of violence – torture? If so, how many of us can honestly say that we have never used torture at some stage in our lives?
Are democracies less likely to torture than autocracies?
That probably depends on your definition of democracy. I can think of a number of countries that call themselves democracies where torture takes place unchecked. So it’s probably the wrong question. Better to ask if torture is less likely in countries that respect the rule of law. Recent history suggests that autocracies are more likely to make laws that enable torture because they can do so without public opposition. On the other hand, in extremis, elected governments are just as capable of using it. Think of the US in Vietnam, Britain in Kenya, France in Algeria. The rule of law is effective only if the law is imposed transparently.
Are we as individuals capable of torture?
Obviously it depends on the individual. But enough “ordinary people” willingly joined the Nazis in persecuting the Jews in World War 2. The Milgram Experiment, in which participants, prompted by a figure of authority, were prepared to use potentially excruciating doses of electrocution on subjects, suggested that in certain circumstances many people are capable of inflicting pain and suffering.
It’s easy to point the finger at America’s “enhanced” interrogation tactics in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s an open-and-shut case, isn’t it? Morally wrong and possibly criminal.
The reality is that the waters are far muddier. That’s why I offer more questions than answers.
A recent story in the Arab News about a job fair in Riyadh where 44 employers were offering 1,947 jobs and only had 811 takers has caused a bit of a debate both among Saudis and foreigners.
Was this further evidence in support of the oft-repeated canard about Saudis being work-shy – content to sit at home while an army of foreigners do all the work, and if they happen to be in jobs, doing the least that they can get away with?
Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, a columnist for the paper, issues a stinging rebuttal of that view in an article published today: We aren’t a nation of lazy, spoiled brats! It’s well worth a read.
He pinpoints a number of issues that contribute to the perception. Many Saudis prefer to work in the civil service because they see government jobs as being more secure and prestigious than work in the private sector. But the government can’t accommodate all the school leavers in a country that – like many others in the Middle East – has a huge youth bulge. He goes on to comment:
I think there are many reasons behind the reluctance of more Saudis entering the private sector. And I seriously doubt that the majority of those who remain unemployed or underemployed are happy, and don’t want a shot at a stimulating job. There is no massive government scheme that I know of that pays young Saudis to stay at home and do nothing, and as far as I know most of these unemployed Saudis are from middle and working class families. For sure the educational system is partly to blame in that it is producing Saudis who are incapable of analyzing situations on their own and taking decisions when needed. With its emphasis on rote memorization has unfortunately resulted in young Saudis not being ready for today’s competitive job market. The extended family system that most Saudis are born into also tends not to encourage independence in actions, as we know that there will always be some relative there ready to help us financially when the need arises and a maid to clean up after us. Saudi families should start raising their children to be more independent and responsible. They should start with small things such as helping set the table for lunch and dinner; helping clear the table; washing the dishes occasionally; learning how to wash and iron clothes; vacuum the house and clean their own bedrooms. This teaches discipline and self-reliance. Instead of always expecting the maid or your mother/sister/aunt to clean up after you, why not do these things yourself?
Well said. The education system, the extended family and the reliance on domestic help are all factors that fashion attitudes among the young.
His take on the job fair – born out by friends – is that perhaps a number of the job specifications set the bar too high in terms of experience required.
I can believe that. I was discussing the event with a couple of Saudi friends this afternoon. One of them commented that there is a wide mistrust of job fairs, because they tend to talk up the jobs with the highest salaries. When young hopefuls turn up, they are disappointed to find that only a small fraction of the jobs on offer are at the upper level, and that these roles demand a level of experience that they don’t have. Thus highly qualified high school or university graduates find themselves being offered low-paying jobs, or not offered jobs at all.
The other friend told the story of a large fast food chain that put signs in every outlet offering jobs at SR8,500 a month – more than twice the minimum wage. Thinking that this was a pretty good deal for youngsters, he got talking to one of the Saudis who was working there about the offer. The employee told him that actually he was on a wage of SR3,500 a month, and pointed out the very small print at the bottom of the poster. It said that the higher wage was for assistant managers.
This kind of misleading hype is not confined to the job market. In Jeddah recently several well-known stores have been hauled over the coals by trading standards officials for advertising discounts that don’t exist.
All these practices lead to a sense of cynicism, not to say distrust, of advertising claims across the board.
What about the young people who do find jobs in the private sector? I learned this afternoon that in retail particularly, most young Saudis leave their jobs within three and six months. Why then would an employer invest in training and development if the people they train are out of the door in a relative instant? Well, it doesn’t help that these kids, who have no experience of work, no career guidance at school and no idea of what is expected of them, find themselves thrown into jobs with little supervision, no idea of any career path and no training or mentoring. In other words, they are left to sink or swim. And most swim away at the first opportunity, either back home to wallow in disillusionment or, if they’re lucky, to what they see as better jobs in banking, telecommunications and so forth.
In construction, which in Saudi Arabia is a particularly dog-eat-dog industry, foreign hiring managers apparently actively resist taking on young Saudi engineers, preferring to recruit from within their own ethnic groups. Very discouraging for people who have studied for years, and graduate with the expectation that they will easily find jobs in the most dynamic sector in the economy.
So this leads to a question that needs to be posed to owners of private sector businesses who moan about the poor work ethic of their fellow nationals. If you treat your Saudi employees as expensive burdens, only to be taken on because you are required to do so by increasingly aggressive government regulations, if you do nothing to train, motivate and encourage them, and if you recruit them with all the finesse of a cattle market trader, isn’t it pretty obvious that your concerns about their work ethic will be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
I agree with Rasheed – there are plenty of motivated, hard-working Saudis in all walks of life. When I visit the Kingdom, I see them, interact with them and talk to them every day. But the ones I don’t see so often are those who don’t have jobs. These are the ones who need to be cared about as well. And if employers don’t care for the young people they recruit, encourage them, introduce them into workplaces where even if the first job isn’t ideal it’s still a fun place to be, give them goals, show them where they can go, help them to achieve dreams and ambitions, there are others waiting on the internet or north of the border who will be only too pleased to give these impressionable kids ideals, dreams and ambitions. The trouble is, the kind of dreams on offer will be extremely bad for business in the long run.
As Rasheed says:
The government has for many years been trying to convince Saudi business owners that while training and employing Saudis may be more expensive in the short term, in the long term it is a much needed investment in the future well-being of our country.
I would go further. These owners have benefited from the extraordinary good fortune of being born in a country whose government has for decades bent over backwards to help them, and thanks to the Kingdom’s abundant resources, they have prospered. Now it’s time to give something back, however painful that may be in the short term. The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous, not only for their businesses but for the country as a whole.
And those owners who don’t get the point should be prepared to see their businesses wither on the vine. The sooner the better.
I usually take a large number of books with me on business trips. I know I won’t read them all, but it means that I have a choice. Two I was looking forward to reading were autobiographies published around the same time this year. The first was More Fool Me, the latest episode from Stephen Fry, and the second was So Anyway… by John Cleese. A third, very different, autobiography by Alan Munro I’ll talk about later.
Having just finished Cleese’s book, I’m trying to figure out why it took me only three days to read, and three times as long to finish Fry’s. And why Cleese, from my perspective, has written by far the better book.
Both deal with a period of the writers’ lives rather than the whole span. This is the modern way. Why spill all the beans in one volume when you can extrude them over several? Both are full of stories about famous people with whom the authors have worked or played. And there’s a good deal of self-examination, which is unsurprising given Fry’s well-known bipolar condition, and Cleese’s long-standing interest in psychotherapy.
But one difference between the two narratives is that the names dropped by Fry seem to feature mainly as supporting characters in his personal dramas. Cleese, on the other hand, uses his portraits of friends and acquaintances to illustrate his thoughts on the art of comedy. In fact you could argue that Fry’s book is mainly about cocaine, whereas Cleese’s is about comedy.
Perhaps because I’m closer in age to John Cleese than I am to Stephen Fry, I feel that I can relate more easily to the former. His acute observations of early influences on his life – his parents, his teachers and the nuances of the class system – are rivalled only by those of his near-contemporary and fellow-dramatist, Alan Bennett.
I had the same kind of education as Cleese, and like him, I taught at a prep school before going up to university, and so experienced the sudden role change from pupil to teacher that he describes. I will always treasure the memory of acting out the Battle of Cannae in front of a bunch of bemused ten-year-olds.
Also we are similar both in terms of having a pretty even left brain/right brain balance and of having a strong degree of introversion. And more importantly, we both loathe the Daily Mail. The major difference is that he has towering talents way beyond any that I possess.
I’m no less an admirer of Stephen Fry. He has a superb turn of phrase, tells a great story and has done some fine work on TV and film. Where he loses me in his latest book is in his description of his long love affair with cocaine.
The only thing I’ve ever put up my nose is nasal decongestant, so his descriptions of coke-fuelled nights at the Groucho Club leave me cold. Not with disapproval – after all most of us have our favourite methods of killing ourselves – but because I just don’t find the antics of snorting celebrities to be particularly interesting. You can read about stuff like that in gossip columns, on the net and goodness knows where else. That said, in an exception to my comment about name dropping to serve his personal narrative, he writes with great affection and respect about Hugh Laurie, his long-time writing partner.
But when Cleese talks about Peter Sellers or Ronnie Barker, for example, we learn as much about the way they went about their craft as about their personalities. Fry fills much of the later stage of his book with a diary covering a period when he was writing his second novel; his purpose seems mainly to illustrate how ridiculously busy he was at the time. Whereas at a similar point, Cleese talks us through a series of comedy scripts, and comments on why they worked and why they didn’t. Much more instructive and satisfying.
I also like Cleese’s character sketch of David Frost. He describes him as “pronoid” which is the opposite of paranoid. Frost, apparently, always worked on the basis that everybody wanted to help him. Thanks to his charm and organisational skills, they usually did. And when he claimed the lion’s share of the writing credits for some of his more successful shows, none of the writers who did the donkey work, including Cleese, seemed to object. Remarkable, when these days so many writers and entertainers seem to consult their lawyers before they get out of bed in the morning. I’m sure the fact that he was the rain-maker for so many of their careers had something to do with it. A great case study for those who make their living prattling about the power of positive thinking.
Cleese comes over as the humbler of the two. Prickly, yes, and probably a bit of a pain to work with, but never less than honest about his shortcomings and deeply committed to his life’s work. Fry does a good line in self-deprecation as well. He’s also very serious about his work, yet I get the impression that he has an inner confidence in his talent that Cleese always struggled to maintain.
I also I don’t get the same sense of curiosity in Fry’s outlook on life as I do from Cleese. We learn more about the drama around Fry than that which plays within. No problem with that. He hasn’t had the easiest time managing his inner self and he’s entitled to set his own boundaries of disclosure. But Cleese – at least on the evidence of the two books, seems more rigorous and analytical, both about himself and his work. Unfair perhaps, because Fry has done much to increase public awareness of bi-polar disorders.
A couple of years ago I review Keith Richards’ autobiography under the heading of All About the Music. By which I meant that for all the Rolling Stone’s graphic tales of drug abuse and debauchery, the underlying theme of the book was music, not Keith’s lifestyle. I feel the same about John Cleese’s autobiography. As I said earlier, it’s fundamentally about the art of comedy, whereas Stephen Fry’s book is mainly about Stephen Fry – and his relationship with cocaine. Funny? In places, yes, but lacking the light and shade – and the forensic observations – of Cleese’s work.
Anyway, enough of the comparisons. They didn’t ask to be judged against each other. I just happened to read the books in quick succession.
Both write in an engagingly conversational style, far less formal than that of a very different autobiography I read around the same time: Alan Munro’s Keep the Flag Flying.
Munro is a former high-flying diplomat. I bought his book mainly for his experience as British Ambassador in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. I can’t say I learned much from his revelations. I shouldn’t be too surprised, given that he is bound by the Official Secrets Act, but apart from a few amusing anecdotes he doesn’t have much to say on the Gulf War that I don’t already know. Incidentally, isn’t it the case that the great and the good tell anecdotes, whereas normal mortals tell stories?
The writing is very polished, and in a style typical of a well-brought-up product of Oxbridge born in the early thirties, whose phraseology was honed through years of critical editing by legions of Foreign Office bureaucrats – witty, dry and understated. I could imagine him dictating his memoirs from a comfortable chair beside a roaring fire at one of London’s better gentleman’s clubs. As John Cleese wrote when describing the qualities of his favourite prep school master, Mr Bartlett, Munro’s writing evidences:
“…the Edwardian gentleman’s approach to life: courtesy, grace, restraint, the careful avoidance of embarrassing others, non-intrusiveness, considerateness, kindness, modesty – nay, more than modesty, self-effacement; the kind of qualities that would disqualify one for ever from employment by the Daily Mail.”
Though I suspect that Sir Alan might disagree. He certainly had more ambition and cutting edge than poor Mr Bartlett, who discovered late in his career that the headmaster had for years been paying him less than the odd-job man.
About the only time Munro gets close to bitchy is when he reveals his strong disapproval of Alan Clark – chancer, cad and brilliant diarist who served for a time as Defence Procurement Minister under Margaret Thatcher, and was caught up in the row about export licences to Iraq.
Still, there’s plenty of interesting stuff for a lover of the Arab world, especially his descriptions of pre-Gaddafi Libya and Lebanon before the civil war. And unlike Mr Bartlett, he has a strong sense of the absurd.
All in all, A-minus for style, B-plus-plus for content and C-minus for insight into the person behind the diplomat – just as you would expect, I guess.
But my winter term prize for autobiographies goes to John Cleese by a mile – a man much more after my own heart than the other two. At this point I confess to a bias.
In 1974, during a short-lived and not very successful career as a concert promoter, I wrote to him with an offer to come and do “An Evening with John Cleese” at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He wrote a very courteous personal reply – not the kind of standard rejection you might get from an agent nowadays – explaining that he would love to do it, but that work commitments made it impossible in the foreseeable future. I’ve had a soft spot for him since then.
If he hasn’t yet managed to finish paying off his third wife’s divorce settlement, with a bit of luck we’ll hear from him again. After all, we still have the Python years, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda to come.