If not torture, then what?

The dilemma is of such magnitude that there really may never be a satisfactory answer or solution that doesn’t leave us all losers one way or the other. We can forgo any form of interrogation that might be interpreted as torture and risk missing an opportunity to save lives or we can use long discredited methods and give up the moral high ground that we always have claimed in the “home of the free and the land of the brave.

Either way the fuss over the destroyed tapes showing the use of waterboarding — simulated drowning for those who are somehow unaware of the term — on two al Qaeda leaders is just another stage in the continuing debate over how to deal with suspected terrorists who might have information that would prevent another Sept. 11, 2001. To be trite, it seems to me to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot, given the fact there has been no denial that the technique was used on both men. That would seem to make the issue over who destroyed the videos, if not moot, somewhat irrelevant.

But Congress has gone ballistic (it is a political season, after all) and the Justice Department is now conducting an investigation, asking everyone, including the federal judiciary, to back off until it can get to the bottom of this. It is all so very Washington. Complicating the situation is the statement of a former CIA interrogator that one of the suspects, Abu Zubaida, said to be a high-ranking al Qaeda operative, lasted a mere 35 seconds of waterboarding in a secret prison before changing his mind about answering questions that saved lives, a claim that Americans will have to take on good faith.

There certainly is a problem with the validity of information gathered in such a fashion. Disinformation is more than a reasonable expectation, which has led experts in this field, including the interrogator who told about Abu Zubaida, to seriously question the worth of the material gathered through extreme measures. But then how can we be sure? There appears little doubt that the use of torture by Philippine authorities several years ago thwarted a real terrorist plot to blow up any number of American airliners. On the other hand, there clearly have been incidents in which bad information about the safety of facilities — the Brooklyn Bridge for one — has caused near panic.

The further one gets from 9/11, it seems, the less likely the support for methods that before this age of terrorism would have been appalling to nearly everyone. In fact, waterboarding had been banned here forever. Congressional leaders, among them several who have become opponents of these methods, were told shortly after the attack on America about the use of controversial interrogation techniques, including simulated drowning. Some even questioned whether, under the circumstances, they were harsh enough. But that was then and now is now, especially since it has been more than six years without another disaster.

When one poses a scenario in which a suspect has vital information about plans for the detonation in this country or elsewhere, for that matter, of a nuclear device and refuses to give it up without the strongest inducement, the matter of torture versus humane treatment becomes truly complex. Faced with having to save tens of thousands of lives, how restricted should those defending us be? Or put another way, how much leeway have they to discover the truth? They are nightmarish questions that American presidents must try to answer probably from now on in a world that seems determined to rise and fall often on religious values that were established when the most destructive weapon was a sword.

Yet this is a nation supposedly founded on principles that emphasize the rule of law and the ethical and humane treatment of even one’s enemies, no matter what the situation. Undoubtedly Americans on far-flung battlefields have resorted to saving themselves and their comrades through the use of violent interrogation. In some instances, those actions have been dealt with severely if discovered, as in the case of mistreatment of prisoners by interrogators and guards in Iraq. But official policy that sanctions torture is an entirely different matter. Unfortunately, that is what we are dealing with in the current debate.

It is a dilemma that won’t go away. Should there be another, even worse assault on American soil, it is safe to say it would disrupt our moral compass even more than now, especially if it we were to later learn that we missed a chance to stop it from happening.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)


  1. JoyfulC

    Let’s look At it another way: a far greater threat than terrorism to the safety of Americans is domestic crime and traffic accidents. So why limit the useful tool of torture only to terrorism? Why not put it to use getting confessions out of criminals (or even people who some believe might be going to commit a crime) and traffic violators? Think of how much safer our streets will be. Think of how conviction rates will soar, and at far less cost than through use of all that CSI gobbledy-gook DNA and fiber analysis, and having to drag traffic cops into court to testify. And think of the deterrent!

    Once we’ve established that torture works and can actually save lives, then wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to employ it in every situation and over every possible alternative? And if a few people (or even one of us) get tortured into making a false confession, well so what? Better safe than sorry when trying to save lives, eh?

  2. Steve Horn

    If you’re going to accept torture to get information out of “suspected terrorists” would you also accept a cop beating the hell out of a suspect to try and gain information? You can’t have it both ways, you either accept humanitarian means to a legal end or you take off the gloves and impose no limitations.

    The current administration would prefer that there be no limitations, our history as a nation would demonstrate that we, as a people, prefer to treat human beings like human beings.

    What’s next? Would you support experimental surgery on people rounded up because of mental or physical problems that keep them from being contributing members of society? Should we neuter people with mental or physical disabilites to keep the genetics pure? Should we move those we feel to be beneath our ideal into ghettos and thence to extermination camps?

    We fought a world war against administrations headed by a mad men to abolish these sorts of inhumane abuses – how can we even consider accepting them and adopting them today.

    They came for the retarded, but not being retarded I did nothing.
    Then they came for the Jews, but not being Jewish I did nothing.
    Then they came for the Catholics, but not being Catholic I did nothing.
    Then they came for the Anarchists, but not being an Anarchist I did nothing.
    Now they’ve come for me ….



  3. pondering_it_all

    The arguement is moot anyway: Brutal torture just gets the victim to say anything he thinks will make it stop. Prisoners will fabricate “information” on the spot because the torturers shape their behavior in that direction by increasing or decreasing the intensity of pain. For example, if the prisoner tells the truth but that truth is not what the interrogator wants then the pain level is increased. He lies and makes up the desired “facts” and the pain level is decreased. The only utility of torture is the threat to use it. As soon as you do, it is worthless.

    But there are real interrogation techniques that do work, but require patience: You have to convert the prisoner to your side (or at least away from his organization’s side), or convince him that the information he is hiding is already known, or that revealing it will have a positive effect for him or someone he cares about. But of course, all of these require you treat the prisoner very well, which would piss off those who are seeking revenge and punishment.

  4. adamrussell

    We should abide by the rule of law. Either the methods are legal or they are not. Declare one way or the other. If we call them legal then dont complain when they are used against our soldiers too.