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World: The Dilemma Of Torturing Terrorists

  • Roman Kupchinsky

A statue representing a Kurdish fighter is handcuffed to a wall in a former Iraqi prison Amnesty International published a 12-point program on 12 April for preventing the use of torture to extract information from detainees, including the use of evidence obtained through torture in any proceedings.

Torture remains a controversial topic for lawmakers, human rights advocates, law enforcement officials, and the general public. Law-enforcement communities, armed forces, and other security bodies sees the debate as a fundamental issue: Can an immoral and illegal act be justified if it saves lives?

'Cruel And Inhuman'

Unlike many other brutal practices commonly used in wartime by armed forces and special units against combatants and non-combatants alike, torture stands in a category of its own. It has been deemed "unfair" although it is secretly (and at times openly) used in one form or another by some countries.
"It's human nature. People don't cooperate with you unless they have some reason to."


In December 1984, the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted. It gave the following definition of torture:

"The term 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions." (Available at http://www.ohchr.org/english/.)

What constitutes "cruel and inhuman and degrading," however, is subject to widely differing interpretations. The United States signed the Convention on Torture, but with a variety of Reservations and Understandings, one of which pertained to what constitutes "degrading treatment."

General Paul Aussaresses, a former member of the French Resistance during World War II who headed the French secret service in Algiers, which tortured prisoners during the war against Algerian independence, once noted wryly that while torture was forbidden, the use of napalm (which was later banned) and 500-kilogram bombs against an enemy is considered neither cruel nor inhuman punishment.

The Prisms Of Torture

The debate on torture has numerous aspects, but they often can be narrowed down to two major issues:

1. Is torture effective? Can it produce results?

2. Is it morally justifiable?

The matter of efficiency is difficult to determine, since there is little reliable data available on how many terrorists have been tortured or, of these, how many provided information that was subsequently useful in preventing deaths or satisfying the goals of those conducting the interrogation. How many of those tortured simply lied in order to cease the pain is also unknown.

During the Algerian war, the anti-French nationalist underground, the FLN, ordered its fighters not to talk for the first 24 hours in case of capture, and then could tell the French interrogators everything they wanted to know. The reason was that within those first 24 hours, the FLN would be able to alter its plans to reflect any disclosures. The leadership was aware of how much information each of captured fighter knew and, by the time the French found out, this information would be useless.

In other examples from that same conflict, the French military was able to gather reliable information about the FLN network by torturing captives. This enabled them to arrest a great many among its leadership and cadre, and possibly save numerous French civilians living in Algiers from FLN terrorist bombing attacks.

Could the French have gathered this same intelligence without resorting to torture? Again, there is no reliable data to ascertain this. It seems, however, that French paratroopers -- who had recently been defeated in Vietnam -- did not make any great effort to gently coax their die-hard nationalist captives into cooperating by offering them plea bargaining.

Some FBI agents claim that torture is counterproductive and that less brutal methods of interrogations are far more efficient.

"He's going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back," said Dan Coleman, a former FBI agent was quoted in the 14 February issue of "The New Yorker" magazine article titled "Outsourcing Torture" by Jane Mayer. "There's no value in it." Coleman said he had learned to treat even the most despicable suspects as if there were "a personal relationship, even if you can't stand them."

"It's human nature. People don't cooperate with you unless they have some reason to," Coleman added, according to "The New Yorker." "Brutalization doesn't work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul."

Coleman seems to have overlooked the fact that the reason torture is used in the first place is that the person being tortured has a very good reason to cooperate: to stop the pain.

Morality-Terrorism-Torture

The "ticking bomb" scenario is the basis for one of the most controversial legal debates of recent times. It was raised by an imminent Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, who proposed the use of judicially sanctioned non-lethal torture to force a terrorist suspect to disclose information that would prevent an imminent ("ticking bomb") and massive terrorist attack.

Dershowitz's critics countered that this approach violated human dignity. In a review of Dershowitz's book "Why Terrorism Works: Understanding The Threat, Responding To The Challenge," reviewer Chanterelle Sung wrote in the "Boston College Third World Law Journal," Vol. 23, in 2003:

"After all, the war against terrorism is not simply a military battle, but it is also a battle to defend our national values, including human dignity, justice, and the rule of law. To resort to judicially sanctioned torture as a means of preserving national security would be to abandon the most basic principles of democracy and capitulate to the goals of terrorism. Surely, this must not be allowed."

Dershowitz's proposal was defended by Fritz Allhoff of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in his article "Terrorism and Torture" posted on the website http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~fha0/Torture.doc.

Allhoff concluded: "The conditions necessary to justify torture are: the use of torture aims at acquisition of information, the captive is reasonably thought to have the relevant information, the information corresponds to a significant and imminent threat, and the information could likely lead to the prevention of the threat. If all four of these conditions are satisfied, then torture would be morally permissible."

In all likelihood, Dershowitz's proposals will remain only proposals and Allhoff's arguments, as convincing as they seem, will not change existing laws. If the torture of terrorists occasionally saves lives and is not revealed, thereby not imposing itself on the public conscience, it will continue.

Torturing terrorists is a brutality that many people prefer not to be confronted with in the media. Some will oppose it, some will openly condone it, and others will secretly go along with it providing that it is not sadistic and serves a useful, albeit unheralded, early-warning function in the war on terrorism.

Related:

Rights Activists Say Islamists Sent To Egypt Are Facing Torture
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