August 16, 2006

Turn The Screws

Pakistan does the dirty work, so we don't have to...

It appears some of the information that helped avert the terror attacks on British flights destined for the United States may have been, well, coerced :

Reports from Pakistan suggest that much of the intelligence that led to the raids came from that country and that some of it may have been obtained in ways entirely unacceptable here. In particular Rashid Rauf, a British citizen said to be a prime source of information leading to last week's arrests, has been held without access to full consular or legal assistance. Disturbing reports in Pakistani papers that he had "broken" under interrogation have been echoed by local human rights bodies.

Here's where the metal meets the meat on torture - what precisely is so disturbing that a conspirator plotting the murder of thousands was physically coerced into telling us his plans? Would they rather be undisturbed, free to know that when those planes started exploding, and thousands dying, that at least no terrorists were injured trying to uncover the plot? It is absolutely preposterous.

These people weren't going to rob a liquor store or smoke some weed, they were plotting death on a massive scale. And yes, in this case, torture is not only acceptable, it is mandatory. Failure to do everything to extract this information is putting the comfort of the conspirator over the lives of the victims. I have referred in the past to the Mohammad Atta test - if you, on September 10th, had captured Atta and knew he had information about an imminent attack, would you permit any and all methods to extract information from him? If you do not answer yes to the previous question, you have no business in a position of public responsibility.

Rather than pretending torture is an absolute evil - which it is not, and of which there are few - we need to define the policy better, and for what it is. Some have complained about Americans involved in such interrogations - John McCain in particular as a person who suffered at the hands of his captors in Viet Nam. But let's be specific - there was no moral end to McCain's mistreatment, no good, even for North Viet Nam, to be gained. It was mere abuse, savage, misanthropic, animal. Nobody supports this, ever, nor should they.

And despite the overweening consternation expressed about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, that was not torture, yet nor was it acceptable. Abu Ghraib's happen in prisons in every corner of the world - people held captive abused by those with unchecked control and inadequate supervision. Abu Ghraib has no bearing on the torture discussion, because the acts depicted were not truly coercive in nature - they were abusive. While discussions about "prepping" prisoners for interrogation was used as a defense, it's easy to recognize abuse when you see it.

Which hopefully helps us narrow our focus down to what American policy regarding coercion should be - the use of physical and mental maniplulation and coercion to obtain information only in those cases that warrant it. This is the challenge. Everyone should pass the Mohammad Atta test. Hindsight indicates it. But policy is carried out in the field without the benefit of a crystal ball. Who is the next Atta? Who isn't? How do we ensure that strong-arm tactics are only used on those who have information that can potentially be used to save lives?

Some would argue the only way to be sure is to not use coercion at all. That line of thinking puts one mans moral precepts ahead of another mans life and liberty, and that does not balance on the scales of justice. It's all very easy to unburden ones conscience without being burdened with responsibility. Those who have the responsibility of protecting the lives of Americans don't have the convenience of easy moralizing about how to treat evil men.

It is time we discuss forthrightly the use of coercive tactics to interrogate individuals. In the appropriate cases, with a high probability of having information that can save lives, this is a moral tradeoff worth making.

UPDATE: Great minds thinking alike at Politechnical...

Posted by MEC2 at August 16, 2006 12:05 AM
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