CIA report: State torture is not only wrong, it is counter-productive
There is an image to explain why different states behave in a different way when exposed to the same threat. The image is of someone in a lonely cabin with a hungry bear roaming around outside. If our hero is armed with a knife, he may very well decide the safest course is to reach an accommodation with the bear. Perhaps even try to tame it by leaving out food.
If, however, the cabin dweller was given a sub-machine-gun, the calculation would change.
This explains, for instance, why France is slower to intervene abroad than Britain or America. When France had an empire it used its military power ruthlessly in a series of colonial clashes in places ranging from Algeria to south east Asia and the Middle East. Now France holds the equivalent of a knife and has unpleasant memories of being worn down in costly, soul-destroying wars that it would now prefer to avoid.
As the greatest military power on Earth, the US is more inclined to wade in, as France was, too, in its heyday as a colonial power.
The US waded in big-time after the 9/11 attacks in which al-Qaida hijackers killed 2,996 people. George W Bush threw money at the CIA and told it to get the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks whatever the cost.
The CIA planned a series of prisons outside US territory where US legal rights need not apply and where they would be aided by friendly local security forces. It rounded suspects up and brought them to these places under a system of kidnapping known as "extraordinary rendition", where they were taken to holding points like Guantanamo Bay. Others went to holding places in eastern Europe, north Africa or the Middle East.
CIA lawyers reviewed methods used by the British in Northern Ireland to break suspects. They looked, in particular, at the European Court judgment in the case of 14 internees, known as the 'Hooded Men'.
They were singled out for special treatment in 1971, which included hooding, white noise, sensory deprivation and prolonged periods in stress positions.
In its eventual judgment in 1978, the European Court found that these did not constitute torture, as had been argued, but "inhuman and degrading treatment".
The Americans adopted the British methods, which were in turn developed in colonial trouble spots when Britannia ruled the waves, in an attempt to keep on the right side of torture in places like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. A handful of former soldiers or police from Latin America have talked of being trained in these methods by British or US advisers.
Some of the methods go back hundreds of years. For instance, waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning which causes pain and stress, dates back to the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many states use them when they have the opportunity.
When brutality is allowed it tends to escalate. An RTE documentary, The Torture Files, found documents showing that the British had lied about the practices. The case is now being reopened as a Congressional report comes out showing that the Americans did the same, quite probably worse. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, was waterboarded 183 times by the CIA as it interrogated him about 9/11.
There is a need for joined-up thinking on such issues. Many American activists will be critical of the British while saying less about their own government. That is human nature, but it is also hypocrisy.
What we need is accepted international standards for the treatment of suspects which signatories will obey themselves - rather than just lecturing others.