It’s Holocaust Memorial Day, when we commemorate (among other things) mankind’s failure to speak out and prevent the horrors of systemic genocide. It’s also the day on which Theresa May, our recently-appointed Prime Minister, will meet Donald Trump, a landmark event by any standards. But will she use the opportunity to speak out against some of the wrongs threatened by the new President of the United States?
Her aides suggest that she won’t compromise on any principles: she will be straight with him about anything she can’t or won’t agree on. Let’s hope that’s true. After all, she’s in a difficult place: it wouldn’t be a great start to this new relationship, with Brexit beckoning, for the PM to fall out with POTUS. Not good at all.
They’ve had plenty of practice in verbal fencing, I guess. They can bandy words and, after the event, their spin-doctors will deny they said anything inconvenient. In this post-truth world, anything goes. Besides, it’s the private talk that’s important, not the grand rhetorical flourishes for the media.
I pray she’ll be straight on one point. Donald Trump says he doesn’t mind torturing the enemies of the United States if doing so keeps his country safer. He didn’t use the word torture: by extreme interrogation techniques he probably meant methods only as bad as waterboarding, which is a simulation of drowning: he’s not harking back to the Middle Ages – yet.
Nonetheless, to me the thought is unacceptable that the leader of any nation claiming to be developed and civilised would suggest that any kind of torture (which waterboarding is) is acceptable under any circumstances, however grave its peril.
The coincidence that today is Holocaust Memorial Day should serve to remind us that in the Second World War we fought a deeply evil foe. Its secret police, the Gestapo, routinely employed horrendous torture on all its opponents: moreover, that wicked regime bent its finest technical and engineering minds to the task of genocide on a massive scale.
As far as I know, on their side the allies didn’t stoop to torture when dealing with German prisoners. Nonetheless, there were controversial aspects of allied actions, not least the blanket-bombing of such cities as Leipzig and the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Posterity has not designated those war crimes: but they arguably pushed warfare as close to barbarism as they could without crossing that line. It is not by accident, perhaps, that no atomic bomb has been used in anger since.
The common argument against torture, even in the extremes of conflict, is that one should avoid the temptation to stoop to the level of a depraved enemy. That argument must surely remain true today.
In so-called Islamic State the West faces an enemy that indulges in terror, torture, mutilation and rape. I believe passionately that, if we are to fight a war against that organisation, it must be a just one: we must not behave immorally.
Some might say there are better ways: I thought truth-drugs and lie detectors tended to do the job much more effectively than torture nowadays, but I’m no expert.
Whatever the truth of that, I am in no doubt as to the moral position. This country must not collaborate in extraordinary rendition or torture. Principles cannot be bent, compromised or bargained: and Theresa May must tell truth to that enormous power.
She must do so, or risk betraying the sentiment of Martin Niemöller’s (1892-1984) famous poem (which I’ve quoted many times before):
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
So who will speak out? I think someone must. I hope someone will.