Saturday, August 21, 2004

What if torture is wrong in more ways than we suspect?

During the cold war, we had certain disadvantages - but certain advantages as well. Even ideologically committed communists often knew people lived better lives in the West than they did under the Soviet Union, and were often tempted to defect. Of course they knew we wouldn't trust them at first, but the reward was often considered worth the risk. Although defectors suspected of being KGB plants were rigorously interrogeted, nothing I have ever heard of approached Guantanamo bay or Abu Gharib. It could have been argued that torture was justified because the communists had repeatedly stated they planned to conquer the west, and that they had nukes they might use if we didn't get them first, but somehow we still believed torture was wrong.

Suppose torture is wrong not in an abstract difficult to define sense, but in the sense that it is bringing us farther away from defeating terrorism and preventing dissasembled nukes from being smuggled into the country to destroy US cities. Suppose 'high value' Al Qaeda prisoners are never tempted to cooperate, because they know that no matter what they say we will imprison and periodically interrogate them (I know, all the not torture torture is on hold, but this is a discussion of why it should be permanently stopped, and see below). Other than that perhaps, some might be tempted. Suppose that any short term gains are more than offset by long term losses, both in terms of getting prisoners to cooperate and in terms of rebuilding Iraq and stopping terrorism.

This is a really radical proposal, that torture is not merely wrong in some amorphous sense, but wrong almost like an incorrect equation. Not merely does the end not justify the means, but the belief that the means can promote the end is a tempting error. What could justify this astonishing claim?

Oddly enough, before Castro became a dictator, his men provided medical treatment to prisoners and released them. The Batista regime tortured their prisoners. In theory you could argue that this should have resulted in people being more afraid to fight against the government than for it. What actually happened was that men in the army knew they could surrender - and Castro's men knew they couldn't.

Remember when Turkey captured the Turkish leader Ocalan? That was a major victory for them, not necessarily because he was a brilliant leader, but because he cooperated:


The head of the PKK terrorist organization, Abdullah Ocalan, apologized for PKK violence that claimed the lives of over 30,000 people and declared himself ready to cooperate with the Turkish State for peace at the opening of his trial on charges of treason. "For peace and brotherhood at the axis of a democratic
republic, I am ready to serve the Turkish State, and I believe that for this end I must remain alive",

How could the rebels not have been demoralized? And how could such a victory have been won by a government that tortured it's prisoners, and would never release any or them as long as it was suspected they might have useful intelligence?

Remember, this is not the first time in history when it has seemed that many lived could be saved by torture, either to gain military intelligence or to break the enemies willingness to fight. Many of the governments which we have condemned for torture could validly have argued that national security or many lives were at stake. What if the consensus that has developed in the Western world over the past few hundred years that torture is wrong is even righter than we fully realize? If we sow the wind, we may reap the whirlwind.

Oh yes.

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page A01

The CIA has suspended the use of extraordinary interrogation techniques approved by the White House pending a review by Justice Department and other administration lawyers, intelligence officials said.

But putting it on hold is not the same as declaring them wrong. What if we are putting ourselves on the wrong side of history?

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