William Hague rightly expressed outrage at the alleged treatment of Binyam Mohamed as described in the seven paragraphs released by the Foreign Office this week. However, his is not the only reaction that the accusations have provoked. Others seem to argue that MI5 just tucked in behind the US Agencies involved, in order to maintain a flow of information to help avert future crises. The same people might argue that torture is a necessary evil in order to counter terrorist activities.
That defence should be dismissed. Firstly there is a pure matter of principle as Alex Deane noted on CentreRight. Torture is just not acceptable in a free society, and we cannot defend our values by abandoning them. Fans of the all-action series 24 will recognise this as a perpetual dilemma faced by the lead character, Jack Bauer, who repeatedly decides to abandon moderation, torturing his suspects in order to obtain the information required to save the President, America or the World from imminent destruction. Jack Bauer’s defence is one of short term pragmatism versus long term principle, and in each series, Jack chooses to sacrifice principle to deal with the immediate threat.
To apply Jack Bauer’s logic in the War Against Terrorism is to misrepresent the nature of the threat that Al Qaeda now represents. The world has seen clashes of ideology before, but this war is unlike any that has gone before it because of one thing: the Internet. With instant communication and a computer in the bedroom of every disaffected teenager, Al Qaeda is a ‘virtual’ enemy that cannot be hunted down to a single location and destroyed in one go. It has been likened to the many-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, which was eventually slain by Heracles (otherwise known as Hercules). Every time that one of the Hydra’s heads was cut off, another one (or in some cases two) would grow back.
In the war against the Al Qaeda Hydra, it is not helpful to use the Jack Bauer approach, abandoning our principles in the fight to try to cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, because in forsaking our belief in liberty and due process, we make it more likely that two new heads will grow back in the place of the first.
This is not to be defeatist. Hercules did defeat the Hydra, having enlisted the help of his friend, Iolaus. As Hercules cut off each head, Iolaus quickly cauterised the wound, thus ensuring that the head could not regrow. The final, immortal, head was buried and covered with a stone. Metaphors can be taken too far but – apart from working out how to cauterise each wound – we probably do need to make more use of our friends. In particular, to prevent the growth of new heads on the Hydra, we should work much more closely with moderate Islam.
In my copy of the Koran, which is an English translation, thus sadly lacking much of the poetry of the Arabic original, I find passages which seem on first reading to urge action against Unbelievers. I also find many other passages that seem to give a much more tolerant and forgiving message. Most religious texts require careful interpretation. It seems to me that if we are to slay the Hydra, we need moderate Islam to reach out to those disaffected teenagers on their home computers, and help them to see the wider messages in the Koran, not just the narrow interpretation that they receive from extremist radicals.
At the same time, we must stick to our own principles. If we stay true to our values, we will eventually defeat Al Qaeda, but if we abandon them – or allow others to abandon them on our behalf – then not only will we struggle to prevail but we diminish the society and principles that we seek to protect.