Torture: all about scoring points -

Torture: all about scoring points

Colvin’s testimony elicited the usual Ottawa question: will it help or hurt the Liberals?


What we do these days in Ottawa is keep score. Everyone does it. Nobody seems able to stop. The first question, in the overheated office buildings around Parliament Hill, isn’t whether something is true or false, a good idea or bad: it’s whether it will help the Conservatives or the opposition. And if this week’s problem isn’t enough to knock the Harper Conservatives off their pedestal, then everyone—the entire capital hive-mind, Conservatives, Liberals, on-air analysts, swiftly scribbling scribes—moves on.

I prefer to believe there are a lot of Canadians who care more whether they’re governed well or poorly than whether by Conservatives or Liberals. The incessant scorekeeping of Hill denizens is profoundly off topic. And never more so than when Richard Colvin testified about his attempts in 2006 and 2007 to alert the government about allegations that Afghan prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian Forces had been tortured.

Colvin is a career diplomat who is trusted enough, today, by this Conservative government to serve as head of intelligence at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. When Glyn Berry, a Canadian diplomat assigned to the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, was killed by a car bomb in 2006, it was Colvin who volunteered to replace him. This guy has literally risked his life for his country. Of course he’s fallible like any of us. But I think he has earned a certain amount of respect.

But first, political Ottawa had to do to Colvin’s testimony what political Ottawa does, which is to keep score. I was on a TV panel a few minutes after he spoke, and all around me, friends and colleagues were trying to figure out whether Colvin’s testimony would help the Liberals in the polls. Or whether “ordinary Canadians” could spare any sympathy for a bunch of strangers with weird names in a desert somewhere who just happened to get carted off to the wrong stinking hell pit. Hours later at a birthday party, one of the hot topics of conversation was how long it would be before Michael Ignatieff’s complex writings on torture would be used against him. (Answer: three days. The only surprise was that it was Janine Krieber, a disgruntled Liberal political spouse, who did it, instead of somebody from another party.)

There was a lot more of that in the days that followed. “Attacking the government over some Taliban suspects suffering punched noses, missing teeth, some sleepless nights and a cable-whipping or two will not be a big heart-wrenching Liberal vote-getter to most Canadians,” Don Martin ruled in the National Post.

Well then. Nothing to see here. Just a cable-whipping or two, although of course it was far worse than that, for far longer, inflicted not merely on “Taliban suspects” but—this was the whole point of Colvin’s testimony—on random farmers and merchants who just happened to be inconveniently nearby when the time came to round up some suspects. But if it’s not a Liberal vote-getter, well, then . . .

I don’t want to single Don out. Everyone does this. Especially the Liberals. For four years they’ve been acting like a safecracker with attention deficit disorder, forever looking for the combination that will undo Harper’s 2006 election, forever outraged—for about four days at a time—with some scandal they’ll forget before the weekend. Did he eat the Communion wafer? Did he entice the MP to vote the right way? Are his ads odious? Is his campaign funding shifty?

Does anyone care? No? Then the Liberals drop this week’s outrage and move on to the next. It’s hard to escape the impression that to the Liberals themselves, things are “right” and “wrong” only to the extent they help Liberals crack the Harper safe.

So it was no wonder that once the Conservatives got over casting aspersions about Colvin’s character and reliability, their next step seemed to be to argue that the abuse of detainees was already going on before Harper was elected in 2006, so the Conservatives didn’t have a monopoly on abuse, so what’s the fuss?

That may well be enough to scare the Liberals off. It shouldn’t be enough for the rest of us. Here’s the thing. Serving up random passersby for a few nights of hell in an Afghan prison is a moral obscenity, and I don’t give a toss which political party is in charge when it happens. It’s also profoundly bad warfare. The goal of a counter-insurgency is to turn the population against the insurgents. This can never be done by abusing the population. It can only be done by ensuring that when somebody inflicts arbitrary mayhem against the population, that somebody isn’t us.

Finally, the Harper government has shown a stubborn incuriosity that calls into question its moral seriousness. “We have yet to see one specific allegation of torture,” Peter Van Loan, one of Harper’s ministers, said on CTV nearly three years ago. “If they have one, we’d be happy to chase it down.” And yet not once has this government been “happy” to “chase down” anything except the people who dare to bring allegations to light. That attitude endangers the best execution of our war effort. It’s not good enough, coming from a government that likes to claim it takes war seriously. I don’t know how that will play in the polls. I don’t care either.


Torture: all about scoring points

  1. Great column, my sentiments exactly (though lucidly). When one thinks that this whole circus turns on which 50 MP's will collect what pension for an extra couple years, one feels like throttling oneself.

    • Hey Centenarian! Congrats and keep 'em coming.

  2. "Serving up random passersby for a few nights of hell in an Afghan prison is a moral obscenity'

    Indeed. Am I alone in adding even hard-core Taliban soldiers to that list? From where I sit, we don't condone torture. Full stop.

    • I am fully with you.

      • Any true democrat, not to mention morally consistent human being would be.

    • "From where I sit, we don't condone torture. "</>

      Agreed, but do you have a reason for that belief? Or is it just gut feel?

      • gaunilon, how about just a moral compass?

        • If by "moral compass" you mean you "can just sense when things are right and wrong", then I call that "gut feel".
          It's worthless without a rationale behind it, since "gut feel" is just an emotional whim.

          • Well, I'd say the rationale is either

            a) that a human being is a different kind of animal than the others, either objectively or subjectively — in the latter case because we aspire to a kind of divinity, even if we usually fail;

            b) that the cruelty involved in torture, either in the mind of the torturer or in the process that fosters torture, is aesthetically abhorrent;

            or both. In each case it's a fundamental affront to inherent human dignity — like premeditated murder, really, except that with torture it's about process not the end result.

            As with murder, there are also practical considerations, but IMO they pale compared to the moral horror.

          • No. Moral compass means you KNOW when things are right or wrong. I KNOW that torture is wrong. That's not a gut feeling. It is absolute certainty.

      • I can think of only two historic cases (I'm sure there are more, but I'm using them as exemplars) where torture had a moral, or at least a culturally coherent context. The first would be the Spanish Catholic Inquisition's use of torture. In that case, there was a genuine belief that torture was the only means to save the souls of certain individuals (I'm oversimplifying, obviously). The sanctity of the individual, and certainly the individual body, was secondary to concern for their soul and afterlife. Ignoring the power games, there was at least an altrustic underpinning.

        • The second involves the Iroquois peoples of northern New York and southern Ontario. Captured warriors were sometimes tortured to death – and it often included ritual cannibalism. There was a whole complex of belief around the practice that included bravery, animistic belief systems, concepts of spiritual essence and personality being bound to various parts of the body, and so forth. It had nothing to do with breaking the individual, so much as incorporating him (again, I'm brutalizing a richly complex and detailed worldview). It's worth noting that in this case, the torture would have been fully public, not hidden away and conducted by a select few.

    • a very important addition Sean, well done.

      • Thanks. I just don't want to leave moral room for the allowance of torture in some cases, no matter how vile the individuals may be.

  3. Your analysis is sound, as usual. This Canadian wants to know how explicit Colvin was in sounding the alarm, not just in his own mind, but in the reports, before jumping to conclusions about how higher-ups in DFAIT and CF (including, of course, the political masters) may or may not have failed. But the point about which party is helped or hurt ruling everything in Ottawa is indeed just sickening.

    So: Any ideas on how this gets fixed, what with Ottawa being what it is?

    • Not forgetting that Colvin is a diplomat, speaking in diplomatic language, well aware that every word will be scrutinized. After the first few emails he was instructed to communicate via phone. It leaves little to the imagination why this dictum was made. The ostrich head in the sand approach to see-no-evil may work in kindergarten but it is indefensible in real life. The real tragedy is that the Taliban will make hay (or heroin) out of this and our soldiers will be ever more at danger. Innocent until tortured is not a mantra for fighting terrorists, its their mantra.

    • Take no prisoners or stay home????

    • No actually the vast, vast majority of Canadians could care less about what Afgans are doing to each other as they have for hundreds of years. Just a big fricken yawn…zzzzzzzzzzz

      • Really? You commissioned a poll?

  4. So just as we have 911 number to report emergencies
    We should or could have say a 999 number to report torture or suspected torture.

  5. Excellent article – but how will affect next weeks polling numbers I mean really – I anticipate another 3% drop in the LPT numbers and an increase of 2% to the NDP which means Jack just might be one election away from residing in Stornaway!

    • You're joking, right?

      Wells's first sentence: "What we do these days in Ottawa is keep score. Everyone does it. Nobody seems able to stop."

      This isn't about the eternal political horse race, it's about moral seriousness.

      • the mere fact that you ask this question tells me a great deal about the nature of your sense of humour! – by the way moral seriousness should never be in any converstation pertaining to politics! – morals are only rules that a cultured makes and discards as it pleases and have little to do with anything as they are the concern of those who aren't dealing with the reality of life – sometimes the barbarians are at the gates and if you stop to consider your morality you are promptly culled from the gene pool.

        • Fine, it was a joke. With regards to your point about morals, it sounds like you're a "moral relativist". From Wikipedia:

          Moral relativism is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect universal moral truths (neither objective nor subjective). Instead, moral relativism makes claims relative to social, cultural, or historical circumstances. Moral relativists hold that no universal standard exists by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries (cultural relativism) or in the context of individual preferences (individualist ethical subjectivism).

          • I am neither an absolutist nor a relativist as I follow the real ruler of the universe Murphy! – in a way I am a darwinist – only the fit survive to pass on the genes

        • Ha ha. I'm laughing not because you're joking, but because you're a clown.

          • the all important 'with you' / 'at you' distinction….

          • "…sometimes the barbarians are at the gates and if you stop to consider your morality you are promptly culled from the gene pool"

            The barbarians are always at the gates for those like Wayne…and so conveniently we can never afford the luxury of morals.

  6. Excellent, and very well written. The "moral obscenity" point is made effectively. This has made me think again about the issue.

  7. Thank you.

  8. "Serving up random passersby for a few nights of hell in an Afghan prison is a moral obscenity, and I don't give a toss which political party is in charge when it happens. It's also profoundly bad warfare. The goal of a counter-insurgency is to turn the population against the insurgents. This can never be done by abusing the population. It can only be done by ensuring that when somebody inflicts arbitrary mayhem against the population, that somebody isn't us."

    Why is it, Wells, that you are seemingly the only person in Canada who understands this ? Aside from Colvin, of course.

    • I'd say many Canadian's understand this…at least the silent majority do.

    • He might be one of the very few in Ottawa but certainly not alone in Canada.

  9. Fine – what should Canada have done? The next best option was to run a Canadian, or NATO, prison in Afghanistan. Who proposed that? Why wasn't it implemented?

    Also, could you correct your description of Janine Krieber? She's a terrorism expert, not a disgrruntled-by-proxy wife.

    • at least three other allies/countries were doing things differently…. that ought not have been too hard to be aware of Style.

      • Do tell. Which of the allies in active combat were doing things in a way that would satisfy the current critics? It appears not to have been the US, Brits or Danes…

        • On satisfying the current critics:
          Well says: '' And if this week's problem isn't enough to knock the Harper Conservatives off their pedestal, then everyone—…—moves on.''

          If the Opps weren't intent on knocking Harper's govt off their pedestal,
          would Mr Colvin's story been told?
          I ask, because prisoners had been transfered for 4 years without a detainee agreement,
          and not much was reported.
          Who checked on Canadian transferred detainees in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005?

        • i think it was the Dutch and the Brits who both has a more robust system than US, read Colvin's opening statement

    • It was proposed by the Dutch who asked for Canada's help. And Colvin was the one who brought the proposal to the attention of the government through his memo to Foreign Affairs.

      The second of Colvin's memos said that Canada's Dutch allies were so concerned about the conditions in Afghan jails, they wanted to build their own prison, with help from Canada and the United Kingdom. The note also described new meetings with the Red Cross.

      • The idea seems to pre-date Colvin's report, based on Mulroney's reference to it in his testimony. Paul would better advance his claimed agenda of a more substantuve conversation by providing some substance on this…

    • It was proposed by the Dutch who asked for Canada's help. And Colvin was the one who brought the proposal to the attention of the government through his memo to Foreign Affairs.

      The second of Colvin's memos said that Canada's Dutch allies were so concerned about the conditions in Afghan jails, they wanted to build their own prison, with help from Canada and the United Kingdom. The note also described new meetings with the Red Cross.

    • So, Canada could have its own Gitmo…is that what we are advocating for? War is never perfect…if it was, surely WW1 would have actually ended all wars!

  10. But this isn't just about the polls. It is about the government maintaining some sort of control over a very murky situation. I don't think Harper, Mackay, Hiller or anyone else condones torture, but wrecking the whole enterprise based on some shoddy procedures and willful ignorance is hardly helpful either, and this will surely happen if we continue to circle around this, getting more and more exercised at the individual tragedies our presence has caused.

    As in all wars, there are a lot of moral obscenities being committed in Afghanistan in the pursuit of democracy, freedom and justice, and we are not going to get anywhere by looking for scapegoats to assuage our collective guilt.

    From all that I have heard, I am actually pretty confident that those on the ground behaved as well as the situation allowed. The rest of us are just posturing.

    • There is a large degree of posturing on this issue – an unpalatable amount.

      But there is no other way to draw attention to the issue (ask Mr. Colvin) and the issue most have the attention it deserves. So, in this case, I accept the insufferable posturing as the price of getting the right outcome. The right outcome, of course, is the diligence in the treatment of detainees that should have been there all along.

  11. I would like an answer from all of you armchair generals, including you Wells…..just what should the soldiers have done with these people? Considering they are following orders from the government, and we know all of you would never have agreed to the added cost of a Canadian prison….Just what should they have done? When you come up with just one plausible alternative, I will listen to your indignation.

    • Wells is only asking that reports of torture be properly investigated, rather than pushed under the rug. He's not proposing solutions or alternatives because that's not the point of this article.

      He's just making the case that political parties should care less about polls and more about ethics.

      To this gov't's defense, the detainee transfer protocol was eventually reformed in 2007… albeit too slow. It should have been addressed much sooner.

      • i think there is also an issue as to whether the reform had any practical effect re the issue of torture of turned over detainees.

    • I am not really an Armchair General, but to resolve this for the future it might be best for us not to be there.

    • "When you come up with just one plausible alternative, I will listen to your indignation."

      They should have built a joint prison camp with the British and the Dutch.

      • But how serious were the Brits and Dutch about building a prision? From what I gather about the British Government is that they are just as tardy and slow footed as the rest of us at getting things done.

        • I repeat my post above:

          The second of Colvin's memos said that Canada's Dutch allies were so concerned about the conditions in Afghan jails, they wanted to build their own prison, with help from Canada and the United Kingdom. The note also described new meetings with the Red Cross.

          • not to mention that the Dutch and the British have what appear to be more robust monitoring protocols in the absence of our collaboration on such a prison.

          • Why was Canadian participation essential to building the prison? These are/were two wealthy countries…

          • right, most nations are happy to go around the world building prisons out of pocket without sharing/offloading the costs…. srsly you are ridiculous.

          • Right, because if you're serious about prisoner abuse, you'll only proceed if Canada shares the cost. The fact that they would like Canadian money doesn't explain why they didn't proceed without Canadian money.

          • right, because there was only one alternative to combat prisoner abuse… does it hurt to be that smart?

            i can't speak for them, but i take it that they were conformable, in lieu of their preferred cost-sharing approach, with their second choice that apparently still put them miles ahead of us.

        • Good point. But that's where our diplomats should have swung into gear, backed by the PM himself.

      • And while this joint prison was under construction, assuming too that the Taliban didn't blow it up every 3rd Tueday,
        where were the detainees to be held?

        • In your backyard.

    • Stewart don't hold your breath waiting for a viable answer you won't get one. I would add though that if the military and politicos keep getting war criminal shoved in their faces .. who knows what might happen next time there is a pitched battle and before the smoke clears a few less detainees are transfered anywhere but valhalla!

    • Stewart, count me in as one of those armchair generals because I, for one, don't understand why anyone (Libs and Tories and the brass) didn't think about that problem BEFORE committing our troops to a long-term war.

    • Leave, is the plausible alternative.

      If you want to nuance this with "threaten to leave" go right ahead. We should not be in any way shape or form countenancing torture of "scumbags" or innocents caught up in the civil war that is Afghanistan.

      Our mere presence there means we've been aiding and abetting any other NATO allies who are less than scrupulous, too, i.e. the U.S. forces which are said to be not "squeamish" at all about the use of torture.

      So far our defence appears to be "don't ask, don't tell, I'm covering my ears and eyes, and whatever you do, Lordy Lordy don't write anything down!"

      I am not impressed with our three generals performance. How many times did they (or MacKay or Harper) utter "no credible evidence" this past week? One can only imagine the've decided to recast the word "credible" to mean "no one from DFAIT or not under our command thumbs".

  12. Her comments about Michael Ignatieff's behaviour at cocktail parties were extrapolated from Rupert Smith's writings on counterinsurgency? Give me a freaking break.

  13. Nobody is blaming the soldiers. They follow orders. Could we stop conflating concern about torture with crapping on those who serve? Please?

  14. We're all paying the added cost of plenty of new Canadian prisons anyway. Did you not get that memo? Oh wait, he can't hear me.

    • He's a military mother? That's a scoop.

      Now, tell us more about these new Canadian prisons that will be housing prisoners from Afghanistan. That's a very interesting point…

    • He's a military mother? That's a scoop.

      Now, tell us more about these new Canadian prisons that will be housing prisoners from Afghanistan. That's a very interesting point…

  15. i don't think it is fair to say they didn't look into the allegations.

    I read the redacted memos and from what I can tell, Canadian officials routinely visited the prisons to check for verification of prisoners conditions, their prison environment, the paper records of the prison, and the excercise and food standards.

    I have no doubt that prisoners were mistreated because we're talking about a stone-age country, but I also know that protocols were put in place and improved in order to monitor detainees and their conditions once they left Canadian custody.

    To leave the impression that nothing was done, is just simply false.

    • perhaps, but to raise the question was enought done, which is what Colvin and now Wells are actually doing btw, is not just legitimate but paramount.

  16. Everyone is trying to blame the soldiers on a daily basis – I'm a military mother, I Know a hell of a lot better than you the abuse they take!

    • Really? Please cite for me a politician, journalist, or even a commenter on these boards who has taken a swipe at those in uniform. Nobody, but nobody has anything but praise for the conduct of soldiers. The responsibility for prisoners rests up the chain of command – ultimately to our government.

      • It would be easier to cite the ones that don't make disparaging comments about "the military". Who exactly do you think makes up "the military"?

        • That's completely unfair and paranoid. I can't recall any such comments about "the military" in general. On the contrary, people seem to go out of their way to remark on how much we owe to the Canadian Forces. But if you think we can't, as citizens, criticise the military leadership without somehow insulting the enlisted soldiers or the officer corps in general, you need to get a grip.

        • Let's be clear about this: high ranking fellows like generals are a distinct class of individuals from what's typically meant by those in uniform. It's the managers we're worried about here, not the employees.

          You were the one who started off by talking about soldiers. It's not fair to shift the boundaries as it suits you.

          • I think you'll find that Hiller considers himself a soldier…but I get your point.

          • of course, he does, but that does not mean he is the same as the dudes conducting drills, nor more then party leaders are just MPs, or deputy ministers are just public servants….

  17. She criticized his writing and thinking about torture. She criticized the Liberal party for overlooking those opinions because he was charming on the cocktail circuit. She has some professional standing on this matter – but you want to describe her as a "political spouse".

    • Um, weren''t at least some of her comments directed at the party's treatment of her husband? Seems to me she's already surrendered the role of a credible, objective academic in this particular case.

      • "how long it would be before Michael Ignatieff's complex writings on torture would be used against was Janine Krieber, a disgruntled Liberal political spouse"

        As a political scientist and expert on terrorism, she might be able to understand his "complex writings on torture". Hey, they might even be why she didn't want him as Liberal leader. As a "disgruntled political spouse", she's just complaining about the guy who beat up her husband.

        • " As a "disgruntled political spouse", she's just complaining about the guy who beat up her husband."

          Exactly. It's not like she was compelled by any professional or intellectual reasons to put the comments out there. Or are you suggesting she'd have done the same thing at the same time, in the absence of her personal involvement with the party?

          • I'm also suggesting she has more credibility on this issue than Wells acknowledges. He dismisses criticism of Ignatieff on this point – his writings are "complex" but a "disgruntled spouse" is using them to attack him. In fact, a professional colleague who is probably better equipped than Wells offers her evaluation of his writings (in capsule and casual form) as part of a complaint about her political party. Wells is over-inflating Ignatieff and casually dismissing another intellectual.

  18. Where does it say I'm a man? You really are an idiot

    • I misread. Sorry.

      • Actually, I'm really embarrassed about this. I was sure Paul's comment referred to you as "he", and since he's being a bit sexist about Janine Krieber in the article, I seized on that. I really am sorry I misread his comment and offended you.

  19. Something is wrong here. We have political representatives that care less about what is right but care more about their own future election..
    Wouldn`t it be nice to start all over, have people that care about something other than themselves. Money sure has taken over our world.

  20. The only consolation I take ( and it's a small one ) is that in the US the state of the political horse race
    is determined by the state of fund raising.

  21. We don't always agree Mr. Wells – but on this column in general – and especially your points about not caring who was driving the bus at the time – I agree 1000%!
    First think I told Bob Rae on his Facebook account when all this started up – make sure the Liberals hands are clean before you start shooting the Harperites on this! Because if it bounces back – cynicism among Canadians will be racked up another notch – and all politicians – including the Harperites – will be tarred!
    So – 80% of Canadians polled believe Colvin rather than the Harper government. I hope some mischievious pollster doesn't ask a slight variant of that question – substituting any of the other three parties' names – because I think answers to such a question might take the shine off this cherry pretty quickly for the lot of them. The worlds Pox, All and Them might feature in expanded answers!

  22. And that's what it's all been about from the outset. Trying to embarass the Conservative government. Nobody, including Colvin, really care about the plight of Afghan detainees. The Libs and the leftists just want to hurt the Conservatives. The Conservatives just want to defend their honour and deflect the dirt being thrown at them

    • I agree. A couple of things to look for when these scandals arise:
      -whether the outrage continues after the storm passes – how many of the pundits other than Wells will continue to follow this story a month from now?
      -whether the outrage mataches the incident – such as in wafergate?
      -whether the pundits report the story when it no longer suits their needs – such as in suuad mohamed-gate?
      -whether the pundit is consistent – outrage over incidents in one place translates to complete lack of interest over the same incidents elsewhere?
      Most pundits fail all these categories.

    • yeah Colvin was just looking ot embarrass his bosses, the current conservative government, and potentially lose his job…. you sir are a genius.

      • After listening to Mulroney, it sounded as Colvin was never satisfied with the consensus that led to the plan.
        Once decision were made , Colvin continued to argue 'his' opinion.
        And he was continuing to argue 'his' opinion in committee, not to imbarrass anyone.
        Some people will argue their opinion right out of a job, Garth Turner comes to mind.

        • You've got it assbackwards as usual, wilsonarse. Colvin raised the concerns first, Mulroney covered up afterward at the behest of the Harper Conservative government. Try to get your time lines straight.

  23. Dear Fred from Brandon. Apparently, you fall into the 20% that DON'T believe Mr. Colvin – but do support the Conservatives!
    Hm – I wonder if the rest of us fall into the no-good bastards category – or Taliban lovers?

  24. Of course General Hillier was lying, wasn't he, when he said that Colvin was wrong in saying that most of the detainees were just farmers. Or more likely he has it right. I trust the word of the former CDS and Mr Mulroney on that score over that of the journalist Paul Wells any day of the week. Mr Wells is just spinning for the opposition!

    • There is no way of ever knowing if those prisoners tortured in the Afghan prisons were detainee transfers from Canadians,
      because there was no tracking system until Mulroney co-ordinated one.

      This is a perfect issue for journalists to torture,
      as there is no getting to the bottom of it.

      • You make a clear case for war crimes having been committed by Hillier, congratulations !

  25. Here's a big hint to iggie, no one incanada cares except the harper haters and his approval rating will not rise one point with all the historotics. cheers

    • Hare's a bug hunt too wayne moores, no one incandandada cares about thee oncasual typgrafic horror in the momments sextion, but if yoo incest on using big works like "histrionics," the very lest you can do is fry to get it tight, or abuse a word that you're akshully know how! cheers

      • Lol!

  26. "I prefer to believe there are a lot of Canadians who care more whether they're governed well or poorly than whether by Conservatives or Liberals. The incessant scorekeeping of Hill denizens is profoundly off topic"

    I too prefer to think that a majority of ordinary [ non political] citizens feel this way. The odd thing is that Harper, who we are often told does not care what Ottawa thinks, does not appear to share PW's optimistic view. Does he know somethng we don't? Or is he simply convinced he's giving Canadian's what they want?

    • So who tracked Canadian detainee transfer in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005?
      Where are the reports?
      Why wasn't this tracking system put into place with the Liberal detainee agreement in 2005?
      Was this an issue before the 2006 election?

      • wilson

        Do you understand that prior to 2006, prisoners were not transferred to Afganistan authorities, but to US authorities?

    • Hmmm, perhaps a majority was overly optimistic? Then again i'd like to believe so.

  27. Moral obscenity indeed,

  28. And when is enough ever done, with hindsight?

    The Canadian govt tasked the Red Cross with detainee visits.
    The Red Cross complained because once the detainees left Cdn hands, they could not be tracked because many used the same name. So a tracking system was put into place (late 2006/07?).
    Up until then any prisoners that were abused/tortured could not be identified as a Cdn transfer.

    Who were detainees tracked in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005?

    • wilon, go read Colvin's opening statement… there were bigger problems with 'tasking' the red cross then names. in selecting the red cross we essentially ensured ourselves that we would be made not to know:

      "The Red Cross is a very professional and effective organization. However, they were also no good for us as monitors. Once a detainee had been transferred to Afghan custody, the Red Cross, under their rules, could only inform the Afghan authorities about abuse. Under those strict rules, they are not permitted to tell Canada."

      also, did you not pick up on Wells' point? This is not about partisan gain, it is about morally reprehensible behavior. pointing to problems in the liberal years, as you are doing, does not absolve later problems (or vice versa).

  29. s/b HOW were detainees tracked in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005?
    Why wasn't that system put in place?

    • They were handed over to the Yankees, fool. Try to keep up.

  30. Agreed that torture is wrong regardless of the practical implications.

    But I'd be interested to know why Wells thinks it's always wrong. Is that because of a gut feeling, or is there some rationale?

    • What's your view ? Do you think torture is wrong ? Why or why not ?

      • Yes, but my rationale is based on the premise that human beings are more than just highly-evolved animals. I'm curious to see whether anyone who doesn't hold that premise has a rationale for opposing torture in all circumstances, and if not then I'm curious (in a sort of "I dread the answer" way) to see whether they'd adopt the premise or drop the conclusion.

        • Human beings are just highly evolved animals, but I'm one of them.

          • Perhaps not so much "highly evolved" as sentient. (The notion that humans represent an evoltuionary apex is troubling in scientific circles).

            On a related note, check out this interesting NY Times piece by Montreal-born superstar Steven Pinker (You've likely heard of him – he's another one of our expatriate celebrity intellectuals at Harvard).


          • Thanks, looks like an interesting piece (ID broke you link: ), I'll check it out when I have some time tomorrow. (I didn't know Steven Pinker was Canadian, btw!)

            Quite right, "highly evolved" is wrong, though perhaps "sentient" doesn't work either: I'm of the view that animals definitely think. I think Gaunilon was being sarcastic, however: "animals" is fine by me.

            The key thing, for me, is that I empathise with other members of my species. I'm not sure this is all that universal, however: the ancients, for example, don't seem to have especially empathised with their slaves, or not beyond thinking "Poor wretch!" when they saw a fellow human being tortured for evidence in a law court (as was standard Roman legal procedure for slaves' evidence). In my case, I like to think of it as a form of pride: by degrading the humanity of the victim, a torturer mortally insults my own humanity. But again there are degrees: I take it as a personal insult if someone even looks insultingly at my GF or a family member, or verbally insults a friend, or dismisses my country; but I don't really care if Afghan jailers tutoient their prisoners. But, as I say, I consider the torture of one human being to be the torture of humanity itself, which includes me.

          • All good points! I certainly share your (hard-wired?) empathy for members of our species, and I think that our empathy is at least a partial basis for our aversion to torture.

            With regards to Pinker's piece, I'm not endorsing his arguments in any way – I just think he's often thought-provoking when he examines familiar problems in the context of evolution, genetics, and neurology.

        • I suspect your rationale stems from religious conviction. But there is a school of thought that human beings would have evolved a moral universe regardless, with a corresponding sense of right and wrong deriving from social necessity. I believe the rules/conventions of primitive socities may bear this out…although i can see how this can be considered more evidence for mankinds continual search for the universal devine.

          • Wrong. My rationale stems from a different view of what humans are. It predates my religion.

            Any valid argument about morality has to resolve down to showing how a certain action is inconsistent with reality. If the reality is that humans are just smart animals then it's appropriate to treat them as such. On the other hand, if the reality is that humans are an end in themselves, that leads to different conclusions.

            Humans might have evolved all kinds of nutty ideas, sure. But that doesn't mean that those ideas would be correct. If the argument is about whether our moral convictions are correct then it needs a more solid basis than "we just evolved to the point where this behaviour repulses us".

          • In any case it seems clear to me that our [ western world] sense of right/wrong are heavily influences by our Judeo/Christian ethic, whether you are a believer or not, and has been for many centuries now. Frankly it's enough for me. I make no particular judgement of other cultural norms…i simply like ours…if only we'd live up to them as often as we say we do. Nevertheless there's ample evidence that human society needs, must have, walls/boundaries to either limit or merely anchor ourselves in a fathomless universe. The fact that there are additional rational arguements for not allowing torture to become a tool of convenience is for me a bonus, but not the heart of my conviction.It is simply wrong!

          • Somewhere up there, Gaunilon asked why I think it's wrong. (Someone else offered a useful correction to my column: I make it sound like I think torturing innocents is wrong, whereas I'm also against torturing the guilty.) I don't have a lot of fancy reasons for this. The reasons I do have would include:

            1. Torture is useless. It produces false confessions that lead to wild goose chases. It elicits true confessions that could have been produced with less monstrous techniques. Since you can never know whether you've got a false confession, the utility of true confessions is sharply compromised.

            2. But that doesn't matter all that much, because…

            3. Torture is monstrous. And if we are to become monsters then I see no reason to bother fighting monsters.

          • Those are good reasons, # 1 is a powerful rational arguement, particularly when you consider there are other alternatives…better ones. How, even if you get the answer you want use that evidence without first betraying most of the basic tenets of established justice. As a tool for gaining info in order to prevent future outrages it runs into the problem that you can never really know how much the victim actually knows, if anything at all. It's a little late for sorry after the fact. In fact i'd say the only way you can honestly deal with the consquences of torture and its uncertain results is to first completely reject the notion of any sovereignty of the individual at all, ie., if you torture you are by definition a fascist.
            #3 Says it all really – or else why bother at all.

          • I appreciate the answer.

            Concerning (1), I've seen claims by intelligence professionals to the contrary. Doesn't make it so, of course, but the point is at least in dispute. Anyway Wells and I both agree that this is moot/irrelevant: the point here is that even if torture were necessary and useful in some (hypothetical) circumstance, we'd both still be opposed to it.

            By "torture is monstrous" I take Wells to be restating the point that torture is always evil. I agree, but the question being asked is "why". Why is killing not necessarily monstrous, but torture is?

          • I keep answering this but you keep at it with the leading rhetorical questions. This is not Sunday School: give your opinion or answer mine or whatnot, but enough with the Jesuitical proselytising.

          • Sean answered your question about killing vs. torture above: killing is sometimes necessary (e.g. in war), but torture never is.

          • "If the argument is about whether our moral convictions are correct then it needs a more solid basis"

            Why? I will it so. I can dress that up with fancy dogma if you prefer, but at the end of the day it's just vehement personal preference.

            It seems to me that you're asking a series of rather leading questions and you would do better to come clean and declare why you, Gaunilon, think human beings are an end in themselves and what the basis of morality is. A non-sectarian formulation would benefit us all.

  31. Ok, but how do you know it?

    • I volunteered for two years at a shelter for battered women. I KNOW that torture is wrong.

    • From Wikipedia:

      "Psychopathy (pronounced /saɪˈkɒpəθi/[1][2]) is a personality disorder whose hallmark is a lack of empathy"

      As a torturer you feel empathy for the tortured. You know the physical and psychological damage you inflict is wrong because you wouldn't stand to have it done to yourself. Empathy is a normal human trait.

      Without empathy, you're a psychopath.

      • In my opinion this is the strongest argument yet presented here. We become intentionally cruel when we inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain, which harms us. Good.

        That makes wanton torture evil – and not just torture of humans either. Since humans are just animals, it also explains why wantonly torturing cats or dogs or fleas would be evil.

        But there is a problem: if the infliction of pain is being done to save others, then can't one be acting out of empathy for those? Example: someone subjects a lab rat to a medical test that causes the rat to die in agony. However the test leads to a cure for cancer. The scientist in acting out of empathy for cancer victims and noting that the lab rat's torture serves a higher purpose. I'd say that's justified. So why would the same argument (sacrifice a man for a higher purpose: to save thousands of victims with whom one empathizes) not apply to torture?

        • "Without empathy, you're a psychopath."

          I agree that Andre makes a decent attempt to explain but from where I sit everyone who supports abortion is a psychopath, which means over 70% of Canadians according to Macleans.

          I am believer in eye for an eye, so I don't get too wound up if Taliban bullyboys were tortured – you reap/sow and all that – but I do think anyone who wasn't part of the worst excesses of the Taliban should not have been tortured.

          • Most Canadians have no idea what abortion actually involves until they see pictures of a baby in utero and/or video of the baby having her arms/legs torn off and skull crushed while trying to swim away from the forceps.

            So I don't think you can say that most abortion supporters are psychopaths – they're just uninformed. The abortion doctors may well be psychopaths though.

          • "So I don't think you can say that most abortion supporters are psychopaths"

            "they're just uninformed."

            I was just using Andre's "Without empathy, you're a psychopath" as definition of psycho.

            There is a reason why pro-choice people use euphemisms. Abortion = dead baby, not hard to understand and it's got nothing to do with being 'informed' or not.

            I need details to answer your question. I believe in utilitarian ideas in some circumstances so I would need details to give you specific answer. I would not condone torturing one innocent person to save ten other innocents, but I might support torturing one innocent to save thousands.

  32. We hear the tales of horror in places like Iran and China, and it's worth asking if we're any different. The answer is yes. We have minimum standards. Our heritage tends to express those standards in the language of human rights, and with the underlying ethic that we can't treat humans like pawns in pursuit of goals (in that our main goal is to not treat humans like pawns). Rape, torture, imprisonment for ideas – these have no place in our tool kit. We have no moral context to engage in such activities, and in fact our general 'social contract' is one where we're trying to establish a world free from such things.

    • Well, I appreciate the sincerity and thought. I disagree with one of the historical examples (in terms of the rationale, not the conclusion), but leaving that aside let me just ask two questions, or one question in two parts.

      (1) Granted that we shouldn't harm anyone more than is absolutely necessary, and granted that we must have a certain minimum standard of behaviour, why is torture below that standard but not killing?

      (2) In cases where a known terrorist has information that could stop the slaughter of thousands, and the only way to get it in time is to torture him, some would say it becomes "absolutely necessary". You (and I) would say it is still wrong despite that. Why would this not be justified by the "no more than absolutely necessary" clause listed above?

      In short, what is it about torture that makes it intrinsically wrong rather than just wrong in all but extreme circumstances?

      • "In cases where a known terrorist has information that could stop the slaughter of thousands, and the only way to get it in time is to torture him, some would say it becomes "absolutely necessary". You (and I) would say it is still wrong despite that. Why would this not be justified by the "no more than absolutely necessary" clause listed above? "

        Ah.. the proverbial Jack-Bauer-24-hours-before-the-end-of-the-world scenario. Gaunilon, can you name one instance when this ever happened?

      • "1) Granted that we shouldn't harm anyone more than is absolutely necessary, and granted that we must have a certain minimum standard of behaviour, why is torture below that standard but not killing? "

        Why would torture be below killing?

      • 1. We don't have capital punishment, because it's avoidable killing. Warfare sometimes requires killing, but again we never give soldiers license to go around assassinating enemies. And enemies are generally free to surrender and avoid being killed. Policiing also requires killing occasionally, but only as a last resort. In both cases, killing is seen as the least desirable option, and it is subject to considerable scrutiny, rules and oversight. Torture satifies none of those criteria. It is always done under the cloak of national security (at least in recent decades). There has, to my knowledge, been no body of evidence presented to show that torture has gleaned significant information *that couldn't be otherwise obtained*. Also, turning individuals over to "torture states" means even the justification of information-gathering is pretty much out the window. In short, torture can never be described as a necessary last resort, and has never been subject to oversights and individual protections in the same way the soldiers or police with guns are.

        • One of the reasons [ by no means the only one, or even the most important] is that mistakes are made in far too many cases…similarly in cases of capital punishment. I can think of an example that doesn't involve torture but targeted assasination . After the horrors of the Munich olympic murder of Israeli athletes a decision was taken to track down and kill those responsible [ Golda Meir] Argueably a case of natural justice many would argue, including me. A number of those responsible were i believe killed – and then it went wrong. One person was tracked to Oslo Norway and killed. Sadly they got the wrong man. They killed an innocent waiter who was erroneously identified. I'm pretty sure the rest of the operations were canceled – rightly so. Two wrongs never make a right. In this case even the righteous anger of the wronged gave way to shame and regret before this moral imperative.
          And torture has incalculable moral and phycological consequences for the torturer and the larger community as well as the victim. . It's a slippery moral slope we should never be tempted to venture out on.

        • So far as I know, coercive interrogation from the "attention grab" to waterboarding, is one of the most heavily regulated elements of US military protocol. Even if it wasn't, there's no reason why it couldn't be. I don't think "it's not regulated well enough" works as an argument here.

          Both your other arguments boil down to "it's never actually the last resort". Perhaps. There are those more in the know than either you or I who claim that it is and has been. But regardless of whether they're right, the question can be posed hypothetically: if it was necessary to torture a man (and by "torture" I mean all out "do whatever it takes" torture) to get info on a planned deadly attack, would that make it right? It sounds like you're saying "maybe but I don't think that would ever happen" whereas my answer would be "no". If your answer is also "no", then why?

          • Objection: leading the witness.

          • Short answer is no. Torture's efficacy can only be proven ex post facto, which removes any pragmatic argument in favour of it. And in terms of the moral underpinnings of our society, and their basis in the individual, torture is an unacceptable injury to both the physical and emotional dimensions of the victim. If we endsorse it, we surrender much of our coherency and philosophical raison d'etre. Killing, by contrast, is only (ideally) done to protect the lives of soldiers and police. and thus occupies a different realm of moral consideration, since it is a response to a threat – not a one-sided application of force, as is the case for torture.

          • There are many cases in war where attacks are launched against enemy soldiers taken by surprise or asleep. In these cases it's a very one-sided application of force (in fact that is exactly what a good military tactician strives for in every attack) against an enemy who hopefully can't put up any meaningful resistance. It's rarely a response to a direct threat, but rather part of the overall wartime strategy of attacking your enemy wherever and whenever he is vulnerable. Soldiers often kill in non-self-defence situations, and rightly so.

            So again, how is this different from the torture of an enemy who knows where the next attack is going to be launched? That would be done with the same motive (protect the lives of soldiers/civilians/police), and would be just as much a response to a threat.

  33. The very foundation of our society shares nothing in commmon with either exemplar I've mentioned. The legitimacy of our institutions rests upon the consent of the people – all people- for starters – not spirits in any meaningful way (as was the case for the Iroquois and the Catholics). The entire enterprise of liberal democracy has very much been about security and dignity of the individual (slow and uneven in its progress, but the course has been fairly unidirectional). Two world wars were largely about establishing the right of individuals to exist peacefully in territorial collectives- without fear of foreign powers invading to gain territory and control. Yes, part of maintaining security means we sometimes need to transgress the rights of individuals – wars, jails, and that sort of thing. But we subject those things to intense scrutiny and control, in part because we never want to infringe on individuals any more than absolutely necessary. Because there's a long philosophical and moral arc that holds rights to be as universal as possbile – if they are selectively allocated, then they are meaningless.

  34. Are you answering the question about why there's no Dutch/UK prison?

    If I understood Hillier and Mulroney, Canada was comfortable with its approach too. That doesn't mean it didn't suck.

    Finally, our current agreement seems to be consistent with the Dutch/UK model, hopefully we've improved our record-keeping and notification. And we updated that after deciding not to join them in their prison venture – which was mysteriously discarded.

    • yes. are you honeslty arguing that you think it is shocking that that 1/3 increased in price of the prison (i.e. the portion canada refused to cover) is a shocking dealbreaker?

  35. This opinion piece might actually contribute to the debate were it not for two significant omissions. 1. Wells employs a dissassociative "trick", suggesting that journalists are simply dispassionate observers of political bad behaviour, rather than the enablers they so clearly are, and 2. Having read Blatchford's piece this morning, it's a little too early to buy into the idea that random passersby were routinely tortured. So…..the result is a fairly dishonest opinion piece that views things through an Ottawa jiournalist's lense. Mr Martin and Mr Wells are birds of a feather, no matter how much Paul would wish it were otherwise.

    • Thank God for dispassionate observers like Blatch.

  36. "I prefer to believe there are a lot of Canadians who care more whether they're governed well or poorly than whether by Conservatives or Liberals. The incessant scorekeeping of Hill denizens is profoundly off topic"

    Sorry, but the media have to be held responsible for this. Why has the "diabolical" mechanisms of Harper trying to force Ignatieff into a corner over the HST pushed the torture allegations off the front page?

    Which is more important – Harper's political genius, or whether Canada has become a country that condones torture.

    • The media have one front page now?

      • I was speaking figuratively, of course.

        I don't care if the media go after a political party so long as there is merit to the story line, but surely you can see how the torture allegations are being pushed back. Frankly, while this story about how the LPC will vote on the HST is interesting, it hardly merits the same status as torture allegations.

  37. Harper (I support the USA whatever they do) should be forced to resign over this scandal whereby Canadians assist in torture in this illegal war.

  38. Well said, Paul. I stand with you on this, like many others. Colvin deserves a respectful hearing. As do the people of Afganistan. The calculations of Ottawa's political and media elite are shameful. Let's put aside partisan game playing and get to the truth. The issues here merit no less for all concerned.

  39. Let's just have another election and get rid of Harper once and for all. This is the man, leader of party, who wants to privatize the CBC, who would get rid of our universal healthcare system in a second. All because it's too expensive and other blah blah about how canadians deserve better. What we deserve is a government who cares.

    • Can you not read polls either?

  40. You will remember a few years ago when the government alleged that a Canadian man wasting away in a Saudi jail was not being tortured. This is the same thing and very tragic that our politicians have learned nothing.

  41. "Here's the thing. Serving up random passersby for a few nights of hell in an Afghan prison is a moral obscenity, and I don't give a toss which political party is in charge when it happens. It's also profoundly bad warfare."

    Paul, here's the thing. I agree 100% with that statement; however, I do not believe, as you say, "Canadian soldiers serve up random passerbys." Making that leap shows a profound lack of understanding about how soldiers go about their duties.

    Frankly, I am sick and tired of the way some are quick to assume soldiers are either too stupid or unequipped to judge between an innocent passerby and a combatant. We detain people for a lot less at airport security than we do in the field and that's a fact.

    Do you really believe a platoon leader in a Canadian infantry regiment (we only have three) is more or less trained than the guy swabbing your laptop at Pearson? Think about it.

    The majority of the detainees in question were taken during Operation Medusa, a major counter attack led by Canadian Forces to push back a Taliban offensive when we assumed responsibility for Kandahar.. We lost 12 soldiers plus many more wounded in that campaign, not to mention that unfortunate episode where an entire company of the RCR was rendered combat ineffective due to an errant strafing run by an American A-10.

    War is not an exact science, but if Lt. Smith took a prisoner, it was for a damn good reason. I guarantee you it wasn't because he is stupid, lazy, or enjoys the reams of paperwork that goes with each contact.

    By all means ask "legitimate questions," but please, no more of this "random passerbys" crap. Do not insult the quality of those chosen by the Canadian Forces to command elite infantry. If he has the quality to command, he at least deserves the benefit of a doubt and some respect for his judgment.

  42. Excellent column. It's good to see there are one or two intelligent writers at MacLeans. I had pretty much given up on it.

  43. Situations like this one are the main arguement for staying out of other country's civil conflicts. It may seem cold, but the fact is we've seen that we cannot simply go into an area and project our ideals over it and expect the locals to pick it up. Everyone has their own ideals based on how they were raised and the environment they live in. It may seem simple to people living the good life that killing and torturing people is not a way to peace. Unfortunately when life or death is a day to day reality and picking up a weapon to join a side seems the only way to protect you and those you love, things become murky. Can we afford to save everyone? No. Any solution which involves the Canadian governenment getting more involved in the policing and control of the afghani people will eventually lead to a stronger insurgent uprising. It's my opinion that that is the cold truth, we are doing what we can, not every torture victim can be saved. We are doing our part, and more. How many people have been saved?