Dark Days Hardcover – Aug 26 2008
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Quill & Quire
It’s a sad comment on the human condition that moral issues thought to have been settled by the grim experience of history are frequently dredged up and reopened for debate. Take, for example, the recent shift in global discourse about torture, which was for a time considered taboo in civilized societies. Since 9/11, however, the subject has been thrown open for reconsideration. For those who wonder if there really are occasions that warrant immersing “suspects” in vats of human waste, exposing them to simulated drowning, or administering electro-shock to the genitals and ears, these two titles should put such thoughts to rest. In The Absolute Violation, Richard Matthews, a professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University, challenges the idea that torture is ever acceptable. His primary target is torture apologists, such as Alan Dershowitz and certain justices on the Supreme Court of Canada, who rely on “exceptional circumstances” arguments as justification for the practice. Matthews patiently attacks such propositions using simple logic, ably destroying the theoretical basis for everything from the “ticking bomb” thesis (a terrorist knows the location of a bomb that will cause massive civilian casualties and the only way to get him to divulge the information is through torture) to the “dirty hands” approach (which posits that otherwise moral people must engage in carefully selected acts of evil for the good of all). Such arguments, Matthews shows, fail to take into account history, the personal testimonies of torture surviviors, or the massive infrastructure that would be required to “make torture work well” in isolated instances. The book is at its best in illustrating that torture is poorly understood – Matthews’ breakdown of the social, political, and individual dynamics that underpin the practice is invaluable – and that its devastating ripple effects extend far beyond the individual torturer and victim. Arguments demonstrating the impossibility of restricting torture to specific instances where, for example, a judge issues a torture warrant, are superbly rendered. Matthews’ command of the literature is commendable, but his book may not appeal to a wide audience, as the academic language could leave lay readers scratching their heads. His book is nevertheless significant for confronting torture apologists on their own ground. Moving from theory to actuality, Ottawa activist Kerry Pither documents the chilling stories of four Canadians who were tortured, with the complicity of the Canadian government, in Syria and Egypt. Relying on the public record of the Maher Arar torture inquiry alongside personal interviews with Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin, Dark Days serves as a compelling depiction of human suffering and government mendacity. Pither does a fine job illustrating how Canada’s security agencies, foreign affairs bureaucracy, and the Department of Justice were complicit in what she calls acts of “opportunistic rendition,” relying on foreign governments to detain and torture these men, while interrogating them using questions supplied by Canada. Pither makes the rather bizarre statement that she presumes the innocence of government officials, but her book is nothing short of a damning indictment – not only of the Canadian government for breaching its international human rights obligations, but also the journalists who were complicit in spreading damaging and false leaks about the torture victims. She also notes that the story is still incomplete. An ongoing inquiry into the other three cases has been held in complete secrecy, without the presence of the men whose experiences are its raison d’être. These two works are a necessary rejoinder to the facile argument that “sometimes we need to torture” and to the blind eye that most Canadian policy-makers continue to turn when it comes to this country’s complicity in the worst human rights abuses imaginable.
"Sober, well written and horrific. Grit your teeth and read. These are your rights too." -- David Cornwell (a.k.a. John Le Carré)See all Product Description