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.

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