Counterterrorism is not a cocktail reception, the author of this essay observes, yet the current debate over what constitutes torture and under what circumstances if any it might be justified seems to be taking place in a political philosophy class run by lawyer humanitarians. He calls for more realism and less posturing. Ed.
Washington, as a surrogate for Western sensibilities in general, is again twisting itself into pretzel configuration over the degree of physical duress that can be inflicted on our enemies. Likewise, other capitals are caught up in our moral/legal struggle. For example, Ottawa, Canada, is anguished over treatment accorded to Taliban prisoners transferred to Afghan authority.
At times this debate seems to be taking place in a political philosophy class run by lawyer humanitarians of the Mother Teresa school of individual rights. Or that any persuasive effort more intensive than "Would you please tell us what we want to know?" is immoral, illegal, and fattening. There are clearly those who would prefer to die and accept for others to die in windrow lots rather than to disrupt a hair on a suspect's head.
But if the old historical Maoist observation that "a revolution is not a tea party" was correct, one might also say that counterterrorism is not a cocktail reception.
The brutal reality is brutal. Torture works. Not every time nor with every individual tortured, but history demonstrates that torture extracts information not available through Emily Post rules of etiquette. Is this the preferred approach for obtaining information? No, a polite exchange reflecting the niceties of human dignity is preferred. And, to be sure, there is a chance that information obtained through duress will not be accurate.
Under normal circumstances, nonphysical interrogation techniques mixing threat and reward, "good cop/bad cop," psychological and social pressures are employed often to good effect. Such approaches have been developed and tested by official interrogators from police, military, and intelligence agencies for decades. However, such information is also likely to be duplicitous and deceptive. A mentally tough, ideologically driven and/or trained individual can effectively resist interrogation certainly for short periods and often indefinitely. A U.S. criminal suspect who doesn't immediately demand a court appointed/free lawyer hasn't watched a single law 'n order TV show.
So what does society do when the information sought is imperative and the costs for failing to obtain the information catastrophic? Adhere rigorously to the various international conventions forbidding physical punishment? Do nothing, in compliance to the tut-tutting moralistic equivalent that "torture isn't nice"? This injunction frequently seems the equivalent of feckless Secretary of State Henry Stimson rejecting intercept/codebreaking with the words, "Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail." But we are not dealing with gentlemen. Or, if we are, the rules for dealing with "gentlemen" who plan wholesale murder (or retail numbers if they lack the capabilities to kill us wholesale) would appear to be different. Those who have commented to the effect that the Constitution is not a suicide pact might say the same regarding international conventions regarding torture. Just consider these cases and ask yourself: Do I employ torture?
Do you authorize torture prospectively to save thousands of lives but not to save a few? Do we imply that we will bring criminal charges against those who torture to find a nuclear device or other WMD (but locate a loophole to avoid conviction)? Do you torture to save civilians but not military personnel? Do you torture the psychopath kidnapper, but not the IED terrorist? Is torturing the kidnapper justified but only if the little girl is rescued?
Not Just Abstractions
These are the questions that our government and our society should address rather than self-indulgent bombastic posturing. We are playing "gotcha" parlor games when reality is knocking at the door. The current debate over "water-boarding" seeks to find an exception for what has been demonstrated to be effective duress. Declaring that water-boarding is torture will set off a witch hunt for those U.S. personnel who may have used it.
There are no clean hands in this matter of war, and those who wish to so pretend are congenitally blind.