Belmont Club

Terrorism and moral torture

Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe adopts what I think is a morally sustainable position on the use of torture. He declares himself against it even if its use were necessary to save a city. Unlike other pundits, Jacoby allows for the possibility that coercive interrogation will work; that it might save the lives of innocent people. He is simply unwilling to pay the moral price that is necessary to save them. Jacoby writes:

On this page a few years ago I wrote several columns arguing that torture was never acceptable – not even “as a last and desperate option” in the war against jihadist terrorism, a war I strongly support. At a time when not only conservative hawks but even some notable liberals were making the case for using torture to thwart Al Qaeda, I contended that the cruel abuse of terrorist detainees was something we could never countenance – not just because torture is illegal, unreliable, and a threat to the innocent, but because it is one of those practices that a civilized society cannot engage in without undermining its right to call itself civilized.

Torture very often does work. When Dick Cheney “urged the CIA to release memos which he says show harsh interrogation techniques such as water-boarding work,” according to the BBC, he did with the certain knowledge that some al-Qaeda members divulged critical information under duress.

“One of the things that I find a little bit disturbing about this recent disclosure is that they put out the legal memos… but they didn’t put out the memos that show the success of the effort,” Mr Cheney told Fox News. “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified. I formally ask that they be declassified now.”

But I didn’t need Mr. Cheney to tell me that. When I ran safehouses in the anti-Marcos days the first order of business whenever a cell member was captured by the police was to alert the surviving members, move the safehouse and destroy all links to the captured person. That’s because everyone knew that there was a great probability that the captive would talk under duress, however great his bravery and resistance. Nobody I know, or have heard of who has had experience in real-life situations has ever said, “our cell should continue as usual and the safehouse should remain open, despite the fact that one of our own is being tortured by the secret police, because I read in the New York Times that coercion never works.” The probability is that torture works and for that reason its use constitutes a moral dilemma; and the reason why Jacoby believes he is expressing a noble sentiment when he forswears it even as “a last and desperate option” in the War on Terror.

But there was another oath everyone in the underground tacitly made, which is structurally identical to Jacoby’s own. It went something like this: “I promise never to reveal the whereabouts of my companions to the secret police however brutally they torture me.” We all accepted this charge as a moral statement of intention, without deceit or mental reservation, yet without having the slightest certainty that we could carry it out. And the reason for the uncertainty was simple. Nobody actually knows how long he can last until he’s actually in the situation. Anybody who tells you different is probably a liar or fooling himself. Some will go further — much further — under duress than they think. Others will break right away. But nobody can predict it in advance.

It is not often realized that the oath not to break under torture is very similar to Jacoby’s promise never to use coercion even as “a last and desperate option” against a brutal enemy. Fighting terrorism, like the promise never to break under duress, is a test of how much one can endure without crossing a line. And when fear and survival are stake, I am not sure at all what lines people won’t cross.

How desperate can people be under stress? Kidnapping for ransom is a common occurrence in the Philippines and I’ve received personal requests by some victims to put them in contact with “honest” police officers after they’ve lost touch with kidnappers or after being given the run-around by crooked cops. Desperate people are willing to do anything to recover their child, their husband, their father or mother from the clutches of cruelty or death. The anxiety they feel is inexpressible. You can’t put it into words. Here’s a flavor of what it is like. One victim was the sole support of a dying old woman who was desperate to see her loving son for the last time. Another victim I know about was a beautiful woman in the clutches of Muslim rebels. None, thankfully, were children, though it is very often the children who are kidnapped and held to the phone to plead with their parents.

It is hard to quantify just what will inhibit desperate relatives in these situations. If parents believed they could rescue their children by undergoing water-boarding themselves, let alone by water-boarding the kidnappers, I think many of them would do it in a heartbeat.  Just like the oath never to speak under duress, the value of an oath never to cross certain lines, is like a pudding whose proof is not in the undertaking but in the eating. Now I agree with Jacoby that it is moral to refuse to use coercion even as “a last and desperate option”. But  just as I myself undertook never to betray my companions under even the worst duress, the question I must ask is how long can you do it? How long can Nancy Pelosi hold out; how long can Barack Obama hold out, if it is not somebody else’s child, but their own children who they could save by waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who when he is not spilling the beans, is laughing in your face?

It is intellectually feasible to argue, as Jacoby did, that we ought not to use torture under any circumstances. In the same spirit, we could undertake not to employ Clinton-era “extraordinary rendition”, to which Guantanamo Bay was actually proposed as a more humane alternative; nor accept information from foreign intelligence agencies which use coercion as a method (any more than you would buy shoes made with child labor); and simply rely on such intelligence gathering methods as meet our moral standards and willingly endure the sacrifices implied. That would be a perfectly moral and consistent position. But I am afraid that morality will shatter in the face of duress; that one day a biological weapon or a dirty nuke might be set off in one or a number of American cities and as the scale of the suffering and carnage becomes clear, that many — including the persons who are now so willing to sit in judgment of the persons who drafted the legal memos which guided Bush administration interrogation policy — will demand the authorities do something, anything, to put a stop to it.

It is one thing to swear that you will not divulge secrets to the Marcos police under any circumstances, while sitting safe in a bolthole, with a .38 in your lap. It’s quite another to say nothing when your interrogator is prying your eyeball out with a penknife. It is one thing to say I won’t use coercive methods even as “a last and desperate option” in the War on Terror, but entirely another matter to maintain that stance when your child is gasping for breath through his anthrax ridden lungs. Anybody who tells you different is probably a liar or fooling himself. Some will go further — much further — under duress than they think. Others will break right away. But nobody can predict it in advance.

There is one sense in which I unreservedly sympathize with Cheney’s request to reveal the “successes” of the coercive interrogation program: we ought to know all the facts before making up our minds about moral stances. We ought to look everything in the face. I find it curious that a society which thinks that the CIA’s destruction of the video record of the water boarding sessions is immoral can simultaneously maintain that showing the video of Daniel Pearl being beheaded is inflammatory or inappropriate. Let’s see it all.  They are two sides of the same coin.

I fear that one day, perhaps soon, and perhaps under Barack Obama’s Presidency, that an attack on US soil will be made which will dwarf 9/11 both in destructiveness and brutality. And I predict that when it happens, many of the people who are now baying for the prosecution of Bush era officials will be demanding that they be protected — at all costs. They demand protection not because they are morally inferior, intellectually infirm or ideologically corrupted, but because survival is the first rule of life. Anybody who has gone through a hospital ward and heard the patients, request and then demand their pain medication knows that to the question “how far can you go?”, there is no easy answer. Nobody really knows the meaning of “last and desperate” until he’s been there.