Window on Israel: Supporting torture

"Torture" is not a pretty word. It conjures up images of sadists, and medieval priests breaking the bodies of their victims.

October 24, 2006 12:23
2 minute read.
Window on Israel: Supporting torture

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The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem Today the BBC released the results of a survey it commissioned. The question, asked of 27,000 people in 25 countries, was "Most countries have agreed to rules prohibiting torturing prisoners. Which position is closer to yours? A. Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives B. Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights" The text of the report can be found at: Guess which country's respondents gave the most support to "torture?" The story reported that it was Israel, "with 43% saying they agreed that some degree of torture should be allowed." To be fair to the BBC, the next sentence was, "However, a larger percentage--48%--think it should remain prohibited." Among Israeli Jews, 53% agreed that some degree of torture should be allowed, while Israeli Muslims were "overwhelmingly against any use of torture." Israel is not all that much of an outlier. Other countries scoring close to it are Iraq (42% saying that some degree of torture should be allowed); Indonesia and the Philippines at 40%, Nigeria 39%, Kenya 38%, China and Russia 37%, and the US 36%. Poulations in Italy and Spain were the most humane. Only 14% and 16% of their samples responded that some degree of torture should be allowed. Maybe they are still atoning for the excesses of the Church. "Torture" is not a pretty word. It conjures up images of sadists, medieval priests breaking the bodies of their victims in order to save their souls, the worst that we know about the Nazis, and African children ordered to cut off the arms of those said to be the enemy. The bit that I know about survey research tells me that a question about "torture" is in the league with "when did you stop beating your spouse?" The Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as " The infliction of severe bodily pain . . ." Some years ago Israeli authorities formulated a rule that permitted interrogators to employ "moderate physical pressure" under certain controlled circumstances. "Moderate" suggests that it would not qualify as torture under the OED's more stringent criteria of "severe bodily pain." Even "moderate physical pressure" was too much for a number of Israelis in the legal profession. An issue of the Israel Law Journal was devoted to articles by local and international heavies who argued the pros and cons. Later, the Supreme Court rejected the continued use of "moderate physical pressure," and ordered the security services to reform their practices. Then we began Intafada al-Aqsa, with suicide bombers and other Palestinian barbarism. Techniques of questioning left the agenda of national discussion. For all I know, Israeli interrogators may be pressing individuals suspected of having critical information somewhat more than threatening to withhold tonight's dessert. Is it torture? Should we care more about the rights of Palestinian detainees, or Israelis who wish to ride buses and sit in coffee houses? I am sure that we do not agree among ourselves. Were I to probe the feelings and reservations of Israelis or others, I would not employ a question loaded with the word, "torture."

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