What’s So Bad About Torture?

Suppose your child were kidnapped. She is buried alive with a limited air supply. Police arrest one of the kidnappers. Indeed, he was on a store videotape luring the child and then abducting her. Witnesses saw him put the child in a car. His handwriting is on the ransom note. He admits he knows where she is but remains stubbornly unresponsive.
March 23, 2006

Suppose your child were kidnapped.

She is buried alive with a limited air supply. Police arrest one of the kidnappers. Indeed, he was on a store videotape luring the child and then abducting her. Witnesses saw him put the child in a car. His handwriting is on the ransom note. He admits he knows where she is but remains stubbornly unresponsive.

The police by-the-rules interrogation moves slowly, it seems, against the clock. The kidnapper’s record and demeanor indicate clearly that he would respond to graduated pain. The only way to save the girl is to intimidate and physically hurt this man.

If your child’s life were on the line, would you condone rough treatment?

In our society, the parent does not make this judgment. The civil authorities properly do. Because, for one thing, parents might want to kill this person with their bare hands, even after torture had done its job. And that would violate the due process that is fundamental to our system, which properly protects civil liberties, even when a life is at stake.

Our government, too, has an interest in saving this child’s life in this situation — and in doing almost anything necessary to save lives that are in imminent peril. And the minute you accept that, you understand the folly of blanket prohibitions against torture when confronting terrorism.

The situation here is analogous to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, when the Clinton administration naively used the criminal justice system to prosecute the perpetrators, as if their act were an isolated crime, rather than go after the terrorist organization that launched their mission.

How, then, does our Western system apply to the global war on terror?

To answer that, it helps to recognize the scope of terrorism, which is more varied and pervasive than many commonly realize. The terrorists will not always be Islamists. And, even now, not all Muslim terrorists are religious zealots lining up for virgins in heaven.

The anti-Soviet Muslim groups in Chechnya are more nationalistic than religious. Many secular Palestinian groups want to destroy Israel, not conquer the world for Islam.

Still, our primary concern in the years and, possibly decades, ahead is mainly with the Islamo-fascists who would indeed use violence to impose Islam — whether they are part of an organized Al Qaeda-like group or lone rangers.

The military supremacy of the United States with the fall of the Soviet Union ended the era of classic war, with military forces that engage on land, air and sea, culminating in a defined victory for one side. Instead, smaller nation-states or, more likely, renegade movements that may or may not find sanctuary in states will lack the “rationality” that constrained other bad guys of times past, like the former Soviet Union.

They won’t heed, as did the Soviets, the nuclear deterrent of mutually assured destruction. Nor would they ascribe to the economic rationality that inhibits an ambitious China and other ascendant powers that look beyond military hegemony.

In contrast, consider how a mullah in Iran responded recently when asked whether Iran ought to explode a nuclear bomb in Israel, given that so many Arabs live in Israel, in the West Bank and in adjacent countries. Thousands of Arabs would be killed, if not immediately, then through radiation disease and toxic cancers. The mullah was unmoved, because he said the key was simply killing the Jews in Israel and destroying that country.

This is not your father’s Cold War-style conflict. And this scary Iranian theocracy could look moderate compared to Islamist terrorist gangs that stalk us, who would lack even the arguable constraints that moderate Iran’s behavior. Even Iran must deal with Russia and Europe, and its anti-Semitic president still has a public to answer to at home.

President Bush, for all his proper focus on national security, has not sufficiently explained the peril of today’s asymmetric warfare. We’re not talking about an old-style IRA explosion that would kill several uniformed British soldiers or even about the targeting of civilians, including children. Regardless of what was found in Iraq, Americans do face an ongoing threat from weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological, radioactive and chemical — that could sicken, maim and kill vast numbers of noncombatants at a blow.

Torture truly could be a lesser evil when the stakes are this high.

Even so, torture could not be justified if it falls short by any of three measures that have been articulated recently by law professor Harvey Rishikof, who heads the national security strategy department of the National War College in Washington, D.C. Rishikof, who does not object to torture under all circumstances, lists these possible objections to torture: pragmatic, political and moral, which I will deal with one by one.

The Pragmatic Objection I, the Reciprocal Golden Rule: We shouldn’t torture, because we don’t want our soldiers and civilians treated that way when they are captured.

This precept certainly holds in normal warfare, For example, one side is deterred from using biological weapons for fear the other side would retaliate in kind. But no matter how nicely we interrogate terrorists, their side will never reciprocate. Their core value is that enemy soldiers have no rights either as combatants or even as fellow humans, and that civilians are no better than soldiers.

The Pragmatic Objection II: Torture does not work or is even counterproductive. Take the case of a civilian suspect who falsely confesses to a murder or a terrorism suspect who falsely implicates others in a nonexistent plot.

I accept that torture does not produce assured results, especially if it isn’t carried out both thoughtfully and rarely. But what about the case when it does work?

The argument over capital punishment offers a helpful analogy. Opponents of capital punishment, for example, argue that it is not actually a deterrent. But what if you could show them, say, just one person who was deterred from murder?

When I confronted actor Mike Farrell, a crusader against the death penalty, with this possibility, he quickly acknowledged that it didn’t matter, because he was morally opposed to capital punishment, regardless.

This was an honest and telling response. The lack-of-deterrence argument simply is a convenient rhetorical stratagem. I regard the pragmatic argument against torture the same way.

What if you show that torture is, in some circumstances, utilitarian? After all, how can you possibly know that in all cases torture will never work? My guess is that the pragmatic objection to torture morphs really into a more reasoned political or moral objection.

The Political Objection: There is an indisputable downside for the United States if we are perceived to condone torture. Yes, some U.S. soldiers deserved to be punished for what happened at Abu Ghraib. It was a stunning setback to our national image.

And it’s possible that some people have been wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo. Many more have not. And we have gained information from prisoners there that has helped us apprehend key terrorists and prevent significant loss of life.

Besides, the people who hate us, hate us. No matter what we do, large segments of the Islamic world believe the worst about us, even though Americans have fought and died in Asia and Europe to help Muslims — from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Iraq. And of the countries around the world that sit in judgment on Guantanamo, nearly all have engaged in torture. And in many cases, I’m talking about their police, who use torture to investigate street crimes, as well as making it an instrument of state oppression against unarmed and peaceful dissidents.

The Moral Objection: It’s wrong to torture. Morality is intrinsically good but is the moral course clear?

Here we come full circle to the original scenario, that of the child whose life is in imminent danger. Except multiply that child by 10, by 100, by 1,000, by 1 million. What about a biochemical attack that could be hours away? The possibility is not far-fetched. Consider, too, the long-term increases in cancer rates in the wake of a terrorist nuclear attack and the profound damage to the environment.

The goal is prevention, not responding after the fact… after thousands or even tens of thousands have died, and hundreds of thousands and their offspring are toxically doomed. To prevent such a calamity, would it be moral not to torture?

The Geneva Accords intended for such formal military conflict certainly might not fit well to the instance of interrogating terrorists operating outside of nation-states. Under Geneva, even temporary exposure to heat or cold or sleep deprivation would be off limits.

Are we to avoid degrading treatment? Are stress techniques forbidden? Critics of the United States have classified as torture even techniques that leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm. Writer Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down,” for one, does not the regard the manipulation of fear and anxiety as torture. Neither do I.

Consider the case of an Al Qaeda terrorist who did not respond for months to conventional interrogation. His interrogators eventually manufactured a fraudulent photograph of his wife and two children, with the Arabic caption, “They need their father’s love.” He broke, providing valuable information. Was this beyond the pale?

What if, in the future, a brain scan could yield lifesaving information? (We’re not talking Dr. Mengele here.) Would that “invasion of privacy” or “violation of due process” be going too far?

Critics constantly group into the word “torture” practices that stop well short of ripping people’s fingernails off or mutilation. Is it OK to be mentally intrusive or hassle a detainee psychologically?

According to Rishikof, interrogators, under certain evolved and tortured definitions of torture, can’t even scare or threaten someone.

Let me be clear: I am not in any way advocating that our government should torture a criminal who commits arson or bombs the store that fired him. Even though that looks like terrorism, these acts are fundamentally crimes. And torture should never be used as punishment, , although it might be used to apprehend terrorist perpetrators, as was reportedly done by the CIA following the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed CIA employees. My argument concerns what to do about a terrorist organization, and ultimately, doing what’s necessary to prevent a terrorist attack.

Opponents of torture talk about a worrisome, slippery slope, but the more worrisome and dangerous slide may be on the other side, when anything outside of “Adam 12” and the reading of Miranda rights becomes unacceptable.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst who serves on the Board of Visitors for the National Defense University. This article represents only his personal views.

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