The Case Against Torture

A New U.S. Threat to Human Rights

In case it's not enough to round up noncitizens and hold them in secrecy, eavesdrop on their conversations with lawyers, and abandon the civil protections of the courts for the obscurity and expediency of military tribunals, there's another way of pressing suspected terrorists to fess up: torture.

Some pundits have already slalomed down this slippery slope, whizzing right past U.S. obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on Torture to argue that Americans need to give up our queasiness and do everything imaginable—even the unimaginable—to ensure homeland security.

There haven't yet been any presidential directives or pleas from the attorney general to allow such extreme measures. But some FBI investigators have been itching for heavier tools in their interrogations of alleged 9-11 material witnesses. As one experienced FBI agent told the The Washington Post, "We are known for humanitarian treatment. So, basically, we are stuck. . . . It could get to that spot where we could go to pressure . . . where we won't have a choice, and we are probably getting there."

Illustration by Catherine Parr

There's no way to know whether, in fact, we have arrived at that place by now, though there have been some limited news reports of detainees complaining of sleep deprivation and manhandling. It's alarming enough that demands for torture have so nimbly made their way into decorous discourse. In modern instances in which torture has been sanctioned as an extraordinary measure to fight terrorists and subversives—recent-day Israel, 1970s and 1980s Argentina—it quickly became routine, even systematic, ruining untold numbers of innocent lives and, critics charge, corrupting the moral fiber of the culture. Nonetheless, some

Americans appear willing to entertain such heinous practices, prepared, perhaps, to let go of yet another defining principle of democracy in the name of defending it.

No surprise that calls for tough tactics are coming from the right: On CNN's Crossfire, Tucker Carlson moralized, "Torture is bad. Keep in mind, some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil." Fox News led off a segment with the hyped-up announcement "Should law enforcement be allowed to do anything, even terrible things, to make suspects spill the beans? Joe DuPre reports. You decide."

But even some putatively liberal commentators have brashly raised the T-word. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz explained that the Constitution does not prohibit torture outright (never mind the UN convention and international law) and called for "torture warrants" that a judge would have to issue in each case. "If we are to have torture," he opined, "it should be authorized by law." And in an article titled "Time to Think About Torture," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter urged the U.S. do "something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history." He reasoned, stumblingly, that "even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical." In other words, take a cue from American business, and when you can't get the locals to do your dirty work, outsource.

Much of the panicked public would go along with some use of force in interrogations. According to a CNN poll conducted in early October, an astonishing 45 percent of Americans would not object to state torture if it extracted information about terrorism.

But that's a big if. There is no proof that torture works. Sometimes, according to a 1963 CIA training manual, it backfires: "If an interrogatee is caused to suffer pain rather late in the interrogation process and after other tactics have failed," the manual says, "he is almost certain to conclude that the interrogator is becoming desperate. Interrogatees who have withstood pain are more difficult to handle by other methods. The effect has been not to repress the subject, but to restore his confidence and maturity." On the other hand, those who cannot withstand pain will often say anything to make their abusers let up: admit to things they know nothing about, give the names of anyone they ever met, deliberately provide disinformation.

That was certainly the case during the Dirty War in Argentina, says Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, a study for which she interviewed dozens of torturers and their victims. "Apart from being atrocious, inhumane, and against international law," she says, "torture doesn't yield much. It's just not effective." Indeed, that's one reason coerced self-incriminating testimony is not admissible in court—though in military tribunals, such as those President Bush has called for, such evidentiary rules would not apply.

The Israelis made much of their ability to use "moderate physical pressure" to save hundreds of lives in "ticking bomb" cases—that is, on occasions when a confession can lead directly to the prevention of an imminent attack. Nonetheless, according to Dr. Ruchama Marton, the founder of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights and coeditor of Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel, even the staunchest defenders of the most aggressive interrogation methods never provided details of a single specific case in which torture led to the immediate deactivating of a ticking bomb. "Anyway," Marton asks, "how long is it ticking? Is it going off in 10 minutes, or two hours, or three weeks? In reality, there is no such thing as a clear case of the ticking bomb."

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