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Comment at the Torture Debate


Exeposé Comment’s Debate Correspondent Fiona Potigny reviews Debating Society‘s debate on the highly controversial and topical notion of the necessity of torture.

With the year’s final debate being on the enthralling (and polemic as ever) topic of whether “torture is a necessary evil”, it was with regret that I learned it nearly didn’t go ahead. Why? Well, who would want to defend the motion? Anyone who did so would not only run the risk of being branded psychopathic, but also repelling future employers when they perform the dreaded internet profile check of which Career Zone so frequently warn us.

Photo Credit: Anguskirk via Compfight cc
“Moving from this philosophy-based more abstract notion to a more concrete one, [Rod Morgan] recalled the principle of “innocence until proven guilty”. How can we be certain of a torturee’s status?”
Photo Credit: Anguskirk via Compfight cc
Luckily, this wasn’t enough to deter dedicated President Scott Pepé and equally enthusiastic Alex Karapancev from stepping up at the eleventh hour; though I must point out – keep your hats on, employers! – that they do not condone torture in any way, shape or form. Their justifications were purely for the sake of the debate.

With that disclaimer out of the way, Pepé was first up on the figurative podium. Armed with no script whatsoever – a bold move considering the lack of preparation time – he painted the picture of that “clear blue August morning” in 2006 in which the potential bombings of 7 transatlantic airliners would have led to the deaths of around 1000 people: a potential tragedy of catastrophic proportions, but one avoided through the probable use of torture.

Pepé developed his argument centring on the new face of warfare: terrorism, and how it must be combated through the acquisition of intelligence, with torture providing a method for this in “ticking time bomb” circumstances. He concluded that we should “check our privilege” owing to our relative safety in the Exeter bubble, and that “[we] can’t handle the truth” that this security stems from the execution of evil acts undertaken “for the greater good” by a Govt with a “licence to kill”. He really was on fire with the catchphrases.

Despite having almost entirely improvised this speech, it has to be said that aside from a tad of foot-shuffling and the occasional pause, which could have been for dramatic impact anyway, very little gave this away. Pepé delivered an on-the-whole convincing speech in a confident and articulate manner, which left the proposition in a strong position despite the lack of support from the audience shown in the initial vote of conscience.

Dr Dan Steed, lecturer in Strategy and Defence, assured us that he would not embark upon an emotive journey through the morally abhorrent imagery of GuantanamoBay and the like. His purpose was to attack the premise of “necessity” in the motion. Drawing on his in-depth security knowledge, which was later flaunted during questioning, he reasoned that effectiveness is the currency in which security services deal, meaning that measures lacking certainty of success – cough, torture – should therefore be dismissed.

Taking a different stance, he also referenced the primary historic uses of torture: deterrence and oppression, as exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. Most persuasive however, was his quoting of the famous “How many fingers am I holding up?” passage in Orwell’s 1984 to demonstrate the unreliability of information gleaned from torture.

Mirroring Pepé’s strong delivery, Karapancev supported his co-defender’s argument by providing detailed analysis of the “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which he humorously concluded that in this situation, we can either “leave the terrorist in a cell and read him the Declaration of Human Rights, or we can waterboard him until he cries and tells.” Perhaps slightly too parodied account, but it certainly drilled his point that all possible routes must be exercised in order to neutralise threats. Though this may have convinced some, it was his proposal that carried the weight of persuasion: the government should issue warrants in order that torture can only be conducted within pre-established boundaries and not abused.

Rod Morgan, Professor Emeritus of Bristol and member of the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales reminded us of the Utilitarian grounds upon which torture is justified. Indeed, it might create the greatest good for the greatest number, but the issue is that its morality can only be retrospectively assessed; that is to say, we can never be certain that it will work and therefore whether it is justified.

Moving from this philosophy-based more abstract notion to a more concrete one, he recalled the principle of “innocence until proven guilty”. How can we be certain of a torturee’s status? It may transpire that the victim is an innocent civilian – how then do we proceed? Moreover, if we are to justify torture on Utilitarian grounds, where then do we fix the upper limit? He certainly raised many provocative questions. His answer: torture must never be legitimised, particularly not through governmental means.

Questions were illuminating as always, and often took a philosophical slant: whether there is a moral distinction between war and institutional torture, for example, or, more unusually, whether a plane of “terrorists on vacation” – ignore the ridiculousness of the scenario – would be less morally-deserving of rescue when exposed to a potential threat than a plane of “tourists on vacation”.

Here, both audience and opposition leveraged several criticisms against the motion: the bureaucratic nightmare of a torture warrant, torture’s removal of human rights, and that its usage could radicalise opposition to the State. The proposition warded these off, however, with a good dose of self-assuredness and a variety of successful examples.

Though it’s tempting to marvel at intellect of the opposition with their impressive connaissance of the complexities of intelligence acquisition, this week, Speaker of the Week is awarded jointly to the proposition.

Arguing in favour of such a gritty, morally-blacklisted subject takes some balls, especially at just a moment’s notice. Despite facing well-versed scholars who took joy in correcting a fair few of their erroneous arguments – that the torture of Guido Fawkes prevented the infamous Gunpowder Plot, for example – Karapancev and Pepé certainly held their own, humbly accepting these criticisms, whilst still firmly asserting their stance.

Although the prop’s combined effort won them a few more votes in the final poll, the audience’s conscience prevailed, causing a win for the opposition.

Did you attend last Friday’s debate? Is this an accurate version of events? Leave a comment below or write to the Comment team at the Exeposé Comment Facebook Group or on Twitter @CommentExepose.

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