The terrifying philosophy behind Guantanamo torture

Read it and weep. EPA/Andy Rain

There are many incredible things about the diary recently published by Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. It contains over 2,500 redactions, and was only published after a six-year legal battle. Its author was cleared for release in 2010 but still languishes in Guantanamo, and is unlikely to be released this year.

Among other outrages, the diary documents how Slahi, after suffering the indignity and abuse that arose from genuine renditions, was subject to a “fake rendition process” designed to make him feel he was “being transferred to some far, faraway secret prison.”

As part of this fake rendition, he was subjected to a beating so severe he was unable to stand, then taken out to sea on a boat for three hours and forced to drink salt water as he feared he would be killed if he refused.

But for all these reasons, the diary is also a document of how the corrosive worldview that governed the War on Terror era has wrought havoc, and continues to do so. Almost 14 years after the Bush administration used 9/11 as a pretext to abandon international law, drawing instead on flawed and overly simplistic utilitarian calculations, we are still only beginning to fully understand the human cost of the War on Terror – and the dangerous intellectual currents that carried it along.

The pursuit of liberty?

The diary should remind us that Slahi’s treatment was not an abberation; it was US policy. And that only makes sense in a very particular and distorted brand of utilitarian ethics embraced by the US and UK governments during the War on Terror years.

That thinking is on full display in the influential writings of conservative jurist Richard Posner of the University of Chicago Law School. At the height of the Bush administration’s overreach, Posner wrote that “civilised nations are able to employ uncivilised means, at least in situations of or closely resembling war, without becoming uncivilised in the process.”

Posner argues that these principles are likely to be of particular relevance “when the torture is being administered by military personnel in a foreign country” – essentially denying any moral link between what happens in the domestic sphere and what is done by the forces of such “civilised nations” in their supposed pursuit of liberty abroad.

Of course, even if such thinking held moral water, Posner’s argument does not cover the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, which is effectively US territory and which is not a war zone in any conventional sense.

True believers. EPA/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Unsurprisingly, George W Bush himself saw it differently. In true utilitarian style, he has always defended the treatment metered out to Slahi and others by claiming that it “saved lives” – overriding any concern about its impact on subjects or moral status in itself. Dick Cheney is similarly blunt to this day: when asked if he would still authorise the techniques documented in the recent CIA torture report, he answered “I’d do it again in a minute.”

Damage done

In the years since the end of the Bush administration, there have been some signs that these base calculations are running out of appeal in mainstream US politics. Equivocations have even come from John Yoo, the legal counsel central to the creation of the so-called “torture memos”.

After the release of the torture report, Yoo went so far as to admit that some of the practices documented in it were “not supposed to be done” as they had not been authorised by the Justice Department. But those reservations aren’t moral ones, nor do they show real concern for the long-term human costs of such techniques. Instead, Yoo is only troubled by the idea that the CIA went beyond its legal purview – and that some of its employees may therefore be “at risk legally”.

The utilitarian thinking embraced by Bush, Cheney and Yoo dominated the War on Terror, and their crude legal and philosophical calculations set the tone for terrible abuses of authority.

Whether that was the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo, the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, the CIA’s globe-straddling black sites network or the use of drones in North Waziristan to such an extent that they make children who live there afraid of blue skies, the policies driven by this thinking have wreaked havoc across the globe for almost a decade and a half.

We will be coming to terms with the costs and consequences of these policies for years to come. But we must not forget that they were crafted with care and forethought by people who shared a particular philosophy – one whose nightmarish effects are still to be fully understood.