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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2008

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“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.

Torturing Ourselves over Torture

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.

Detainees at Guantanamo
Potential Catastrophic Costs
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?
  • A nuclear weapon of significant size, e.g., 20,000 tons of TNT, is concealed in a major metropolis. The individual who placed it has been caught; he has resisted nonphysical interrogation. Time is highly limited.
  • A "dirty bomb" that would release nuclear radiation/radioactive debris but not a nuclear explosion is similarly hidden. The same circumstances of limited time and a resistant individual apply.
  • A device for releasing a highly infectious and lethal disease, e.g., anthrax, is likewise concealed.
  • The hidden device is a substantial amount of high explosives, e.g., several hundred pounds, concealed in a major urban center and positioned to inflict heavy casualties.
  • A number of improvised explosive devices are hidden in market places, religious structures, and/or transportation stations.
  • These IEDs are hidden along routes and in structures where your military forces will be operating.
  • Or, to change from macro to micro, consider the case of a kidnapped child. For poignancy, let's say a little girl has been buried by a psychopathic child molester; water and air supplies are severely limited. He freely admits what he has done, but refuses all pleas to reveal the location. And don't think for a moment that the "easy out" of fooling the kidnapper to reveal the location will be the happy ending answer for such nonfictional drama.

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
And don't dismiss these questions as abstractions or think that you can avoid the societal reality that they will happen by averting your eyes and minds.

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.

Daniel Pearl
Moreover, the charge that members of our armed forces or civilians will be tortured if we surrender the moral high ground suggests that our terrorist opponents have some compunction against torturing us. There is no moral high ground in terrorism; the torturing terrorist regards himself as equally moral as the individual being tortured, if not morally superior due to his religious beliefs and/or ideology. In that regard, it should not pass unnoticed that there have been virtually no U.S. military personnel missing/captured in five years of Iraq combat. There are multiple reasons for this virtually unique circumstance, including our exceptional combat competence; however, not peripheral is the unspoken commitment to "fight to the death" or end up being tortured/beheaded for the benefit of the Al Jazirah audience.

There are no clean hands in this matter of war, and those who wish to so pretend are congenitally blind.


David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, is a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications.

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