Saturday, September 23, 2006

Discussion of Torture needed

That was the somewhat inaccurate headline for this week's Potomac News column -- can't blame them though, it's the one I sent in with the column.

Anyway, here's some snippets from my weekly column, which now appears on Thursdays in the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger, titled "Discussion of Torture Needed":

Suppose a criminal has kidnapped a member of your family. The police catch him. Before being silenced by his lawyer, the kidnapper says the hostage is alive, but won't be for long. You need to act quickly, but the criminal isn't talking. And under our system of justice, the police cannot question him.

If you could get an hour alone with him, what would you do to get him to talk? Would you use torture? Would you mind hurting him to save your child? Would you violate his rights, even if it meant he would go free, to save your family member?

My goal is to make people think personally about the issue, to weigh the difference in response to a general intellectual discussion of harsh interrogation techniques ("Of course, we shouldn't do that") and the response if you are personally responsible for the consequences of choosing NOT to question a suspect. Now jumping forward:

Our rules of justice are clear -- criminals have rights, and we don't violate those rights, even if it means the death of innocent people. Fortunately, the situation rarely comes up with common criminals. Our morality rarely costs us more than a guilty man going free. That is a price we are willing to pay for the moral high ground.

Now our government is debating the forms of interrogation we should use against terrorists. This is not some election-year ploy; this is a serious issue that requires serious thought, discussion, and resolution. Our decision will define us to the world for a generation. And on this serious issue, Republicans are leading the discussion on both sides.

Unlike some conservatives, I was not upset at the actions of Warner, McCain, and others. This issue was not a political issue, it is something (as I argue following) that we had to confront, discuss, and decide on. And I was happy that republicans were willing to risk looking "divided" in order to ensure the discussion was had. Which it was this week, and a better compromise was reached as a result. With no help from the democrats, who according to the New York Times "remained on the sidelines, sidestepping Republican efforts to draw them into a fight over Mr. Bush’s leadership on national security heading toward the midterm election." That's not leadership, it's cowardice.

The discussion involves the meaning and purpose of the Geneva Convention. It's important to understand this point -- the Geneva Convention was not adopted because soldiers aren't worth interrogating, but because they are.

An "average" soldier could know important information, that if revealed could save the lives of his captor's people. They could know the location of troops, bases, and supply lines. They might even know the date and location of a major offensive operation. Torturing soldiers could save lives.

But since nobody wants their own soldiers tortured, the Geneva Convention was adopted. Its purpose is to ensure that neither side will mistreat soldiers to gain information. That could mean lives will be lost, but it is better than having your people afraid to be captured because they would be tortured. And if your enemy knows you will treat them humanely, they have reason to surrender rather than fight to the death.

This was a response to some conservatives who argued with me that the Geneva convention was acceptable because simple soldiers wouldn't be worth questioning anyway. But also to answer liberals who suggested that torture would be worthless (as did a letter responding to my column). Torture can get you wrong information, especially if the person doesn't know something. But it will also get what the person DOES know -- McCain himself gave away valuable but fortunately old information, for example, when he was tortured. And Kaleed Mohammad (I butchered that name I bet) gave us actionable information that proved true and led to the capture of terrorists and the prevention of attacks. If you oppose torture, do so because it's wrong, not by false claims it doesn't work anyway

So I agree with Sen. John Warner on this point -- if we are talking about troops following the rules of war, we should clearly reject coercive or harmful interrogation techniques. But we must distinguish between lawful war, and unlawful terrorism.

So did both Allen and Webb at the MTP debate, although as I mentioned in a previous post, Allen didn't just say he agreed, he spelled out the importance of balancing both our security and our morality -- a position Warner also took, and which led to the successful compromise (I await Webb's position on the final bill, since he already signed in with Warner/McCain but the DailyKos/MoveOn crowd is having a fit; maybe Webb will disavow another endorsement here).

If an enemy is fighting dirty, we should be allowed to use some coercive techniques to find out what their next unlawful act will be. Those who plan and carry out illegal acts of terrorism don't deserve the same protections as lawful combatants. The Geneva Convention doesn't require it, and morality doesn't dictate it. This is what we need to discuss -- but let's not confuse the issue by comparing terrorists using illegal acts of violence with soldiers following the rules of war.
I respect those who argue that all humans, no matter how "inhuman," should be treated with basic human decency. But before we adopt that position, its advocates must make sure the American people understand the consequences of their choice.

I purposely chose not to use "torture" here, because I personally oppose invasive "torture" techniques such as, say shooting a suspect in the leg (although it works well in the movies and on TV, most memorably in the movie "The Patriot Games" where Ryan puts one in the kneecap of the traitorous British Attachee who promptly tells him the terrorist's escape plan and complement). The word "torture" skews the debate, so I used "coercive interrogation techniques" (not, as some might suspect, to pad my word count).

Suppose we capture a terrorist that is part of a plot to set off a nuclear device in our country? If we forbid coercive interrogation, and he won't talk over tea and crumpets, we won't stop the attack. Can we accept a hundred thousand Americans dead, a million injured, and a city destroyed?

Opponents of coercive interrogations must explain to the survivors the deaths of their loved ones. They need to make the case now that not putting a terrorist's head under water for a minute is more important than the lives of innocent Americans.

My point being that there is a morality involved in both choices; just as someone said the Constitution is not a suicide pact, neither to I think our moral strictures are meant to lead to our exinction.

Senator McCain suggests we should just break the rules in cases like this. I reject that. If there are instances where coercion is acceptable, we should say so. We are a nation of laws.

I had found McCain's suggestion on this point objectionable enough to me to put in in the article, even cutting another good paragraph somewhere to keep it. It was kind of out of place, but those who know me know I hate passing laws that we expect people to break in the normal course of business, like speed limits and the 21-year-old drinking age.

We have stopped terror plots that would have killed Americans through the use of interrogation techniques that, while mild, would be curtailed if we do nothing. If we are going to make that decision, it has to be because the American people have had the choices clearly explained, and are willing as a nation to accept the death of our citizens for the principle that we will not scare terrorists into talking.

That last paragraph was missing from both the print and online editions. I've got to find out why they keep dropping my last paragraph -- it's repetitive, but I do that for a reason. Anyway, it is my summary -- we could choose to reject any interrogation that could possibly run afoul of article 3, but those doing so must explain and accept the consequences.

I had expected there would be a few more days of discussion before a compromise was reached, and people might call Senator Allen and Warner about this topic. But on the day my article was posted, the compromise was reached, and the bill is now being debated on the Senate Floor.

I support the compromise.


Anonymous said...

I think a quick view of the 'Geneva Convention' rights the terrorist afforded two of our finest. Video released today.

Charles said...

That is one of the many videos I will NEVER watch.