What, exactly, is torture?

On one extreme of the debate over interrogating terrorists are the Jack Bauers, those who — like the lead character in Fox’s hit series “24”– think you do whatever it takes to get the information you need from someone plotting mass murder. At the other extreme is the anti-war left: It wouldn’t harm a hair on 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s head to save Disneyland at Christmas.

Those of us who hold views somewhere between these poles ought to be having a serious discussion about what methods should be permissible and under what circumstances. But that’s become close to impossible. A case in point: I was on “The Abrams Report” on MSNBC last week to discuss whether Judge Michael Mukasey, during congressional hearings, should have said whether “waterboarding” — simulated drowning — constitutes torture and therefore must be prohibited.

I argued that Mukasey was right to reserve judgment. Should he be confirmed as attorney general, he’ll want to study the issue before rendering a legal opinion. He’ll want to know how painful waterboarding is, whether it inflicts permanent damage, whether it achieves results that less aggressive methods do not.

Dan Abrams, the show’s host, would hear none of it. As I tried to make my points, he aired footage of what appeared to be a subject undergoing waterboarding. It looked unpleasant. That means it’s a form of torture, he insisted, therefore it obviously must be banned.

I asked Abrams, and his other guest, liberal talk-radio host Stephanie Miller, to define torture in a sentence or two. Neither would do so. Miller said torture was like pornography — she knows it when she sees it. I tried to get them to be specific about what interrogation techniques they would allow: Sleep deprivation? Incarceration in a cold cell? Loud music? Isolation and boredom? Slaps upside the head? They would not say.

After the show, the left-wing blogs were quick to attack me. The Democratic Underground said: “Cliff May should be waterboarded.” On the Daily Kos, someone who calls himself “Black Max” accused me of having proposed that Miller be tortured. Another Web site called me a “fascist.” Anatomical and scatological terms were used to describe me as well.

Do these people not understand that we face a deadly serious dilemma? To win a war against shadowy Islamist terrorist movements will require good intelligence. To obtain that intelligence, captured terrorists must be interrogated. Which techniques are effective? Which techniques are so cruel that they should be off-limits — even if innocent lives will be lost?

Should there be procedures permissible only where there is an imminent danger? Might less harsh but still coercive techniques — inflicting what is called “stress and duress” — be allowed when interrogating a “high-value” suspect — for example, someone who knows where Osama bin Laden is hiding? A third set of rules could govern the questioning of enemy combatants held for long periods at places like Gitmo where, at this moment, lawyers and Red Cross representatives are present, interrogation rooms include lounge chairs and detainees may decline to be interrogated at all.

Should the president be required to authorize “enhanced” interrogations? Could Congress perform oversight? Would it be useful to set up a National Security Court for this and related purposes?

I also wonder: How much must we tell al Qaeda and other terrorists about what to expect? If terrorists know they may be waterboarded, they will prepare themselves to withstand the ordeal. In fact, waterboarding has been used to train and toughen American commandoes and spies.

Dan and Stephanie, please take note: Torture is generally defined as the intentional infliction of “pain and suffering” so “severe” that it “shocks the conscience.” That clearly includes gouging out eyes and prying off fingernails. Does it rule out any and all techniques designed to make a terrorist feel alone, abandoned, vulnerable and dependent on his captors? Does an unlawful combatant — one who flagrantly and routinely violates the most fundamental laws of war — deserve the same respectful treatment as a soldier who has fought honorably?

It has been widely reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding and, as a result, he surrendered intelligence that led to the foiling of terrorist plots and the saving of innocent lives. Do you regret that? Would you tell those sworn to protect and defend Americans never to do it again — accepting the consequences of that policy?

We won’t be able to answer such difficult questions unless the moral posturing and partisan maneuvering stop, and a serious debate begins.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)


  1. danders3

    Defining torture really isn’t all that hard. All one has to ask themselves is if it happened to one of our folks while they were in captivity overseas, what would we define it as? If it’s torture when it happens to a US citizen, then it’s torture when it’s done in the name of US citizens.

    If one really believes in the line “freedom isn’t free,” then they also ought to be willing to accept that there may come a time when their life will be sacrificed because the concepts and laws that underpin said freedom will sometimes trump absolute safety at all costs.

    Dale Anderson

  2. JoyfulC

    Along with a discussion over what torture is, we need a discussion over what we expect torture to accomplish. May asks what we feel it’s okay to do to someone to get info to head off a terrorist attack — but I’d like to know how information gained during aggressive interrogations is tested. If someone wanted my PIN number, and they had me down on the floor torturing me right there in the little antechamber of my bank in front of the ATM machine, they could stop and test the info I gave them before either deciding I’d given them useful information or torturing me some more.

    Life rarely imitates a 1-hour, serialized TV drama and torture almost never results in useful information. We’re not dealing with terrorists like ourselves — men who sit back in ties in offices and issue orders. We’re dealing with crazy bastards who are willing to go out there and die for what they believe.

    The fact is that torture has been most successful at securing false confessions from innocent persons! Considering that our government is currently holding a number of people without access to due process, giving them the green light to torture, as well, is a very scary proposition!

    The idea of torture is no doubt popular with that segment of our culture that lives for UFC and Rambo movies, or that would buy a knock-off Rolex or a male-enhancement product (or alternatively, fake boobs) because they believe it would impress people. And sadly, that’s not only part of America, it’s a growing part of America. But not every American wants the government to resort to torture to protect us. Not every Amercan wants the government to abandon the Constitution and our commitment to justice to protect us.

    Some of us believe that terrorists might kill us or kill our loved ones, but that doesn’t mean they’ve won. Winning for the terrorists means dragging us down to their level and destroying every vestige of the pride that Americans have always been able to have in themselves.

    Our accepting any level of torture is a point scored for the terrorists.

  3. Elmo

    Interrogators operate on the assumption that the subject actually knows whatever it is that they want to find out and that it is their job to get the subject to confess and admit it. They always use whatever means are available to do their job.

  4. Stratocaster

    If you were in the old military, you endured a lot more during basic training than anything that has been done to the terrorists today. If there are no limbs severed and no physical damage done, they are not torturing you; they are just screwing with you.

  5. Steve Horn

    What is torture? According to most scientific studies it’s ineffective for gathering meaningful information. Perhaps that can explain, to some extent, the lousy intel we’ve been getting since dumbass took us into Iraq.

  6. Manoa

    However one might reasonably define torture, “water boarding” (or the “water cure” or “water torture,” whatever one wants to call it) would qualify. The United States participated in war crimes trials in the aftermath of WWII in which water boarding was considered a war crime and a basis for conviction of those who had practiced it. While Mr. May’s plea that we now define torture may sound reasonable on its face, it is not, because the war crimes trials in the aftermath of WWII did exactly that. From what I have seen recently, everyone, including Mr. May, who now publicly advocates the need to define torture is actually advocating a new definition for torture that repudiates the existing definition because they find the existing definition as established after WWII too limiting. In other words, they want to license the US government to engage in the exact activities that were deemed war crimes after WWII. I am astounded that this is even a subject of serious debate. I would think that no American would want to contemplate legalizing the very things that we as a Nation so proudly prosecuted as inexcusable crimes against humanity.

  7. sherry

    I read an interesting tale. It was the sort of thing that served us well in WW2 and probably why when I went there in the 80’s the Germans loved Americans.
    An interrogator asked this fella what his hobbies were, What would he like to read? The guy wanted porn. The interrogators gave him all the porn he wanted. Our government paid for his wife’s lifesaving surgery. Wifey told hubby, now you tell them every thing they want to know. They are nice people! Supposedly we got some really good info from that guy.
    It has been proven over and over again, torture does not give us good information. And it further endangers our soldiers. If we don’t adhere to the Geneva Conventions, why should they?