Syd Writers' Festival Review: Preventing Torture

21 May 2012

It's hard to imagine the man on the podium as a CIA agent. With his soft American drawl and friendly-featured face, Glenn Carle could've been plucked straight out of Hollywood's version of suburbia. Affable and mild-mannered, he seems the perfect neighbour - someone who takes their lawn-mowing seriously.

What you probably wouldn't guess is that his past involves 25 years of service in the CIA (he retired in 2007), and the "interrogation" of a high-level Al Qaeda suspect - the exact details of which he is forbidden from disclosing.

Darker truths sometimes lurk behind the most deceptive of appearances, and Carle, who published his autobiography The Interrogator last year, is no exception. It is this incongruity that resonated at the heart of Friday's talk on Preventing Torture which posed the question: how is it that liberal democratic governments engage in torture?

In discussion with University of Sydney academic Danielle Celermajer, Carle criticised the US government's use of torture, seeing it as a corrosive force eating at America's founding principles from within. Where does society go next, he wondered, if it accepts the systematic violation of human rights as a prerequisite for public safety? Can the many laws designed to protect against this abuse of power really be undone by the phrase: "If the President orders it, it's legal"?

One of the most frightening aspects of his story, Carle revealed, was his realisation that torture - a "testosterone urge to subjugate the enemy" - exposes humans as "animals in ways we don't consciously accept."

In turn, both speakers cautioned of the "paradigms that normalise abuse." Carle argued that post 9/11 society now accepts the use of torture in a way which, twelve years ago, would've been unthinkable. Within an Australian context, Celermajer drew parallels to the government's treatment of illegal immigrants - played to the tune that these are "queue-jumpers", despite there being no actual "queue."

All too soon, however, the confronting talk came to an end, leaving the audience with much to consider about the ethical journey we'd been taken on, and the man who, in his own words, dares tell the Emperor he is naked.

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