Submitted for your approval is an item from the following scenario. A man, certainly deranged and possibly part of larger group of evil-intending madmen, has been arrested after a bomb has gone off. We are certain of his guilt as the evidence against him is overwhelming and he has confessed to the crime, but there remains the suspicion that the bomb, which has killed and maimed many innocents, may be part of a larger plot against the body politic. Danger lurks in the passing moments of what could very well be a ticking time bomb.
Did he act alone, or did he have help? Will other bombs go off in other cities, leading to the death and maiming of more citizens? The prospect of further terror being strewn through our streets has put immense pressure on law enforcement for results. The order comes down, informally of course, to put the suspect to the third degree. To rough him up, in other words, by enhancing his interrogation via special techniques developed over the ages by men trained in the dark art of inflicting suffering and pain.
As the leader of the officers heading the investigation, do you speak up? Do you oppose what is about to happen because, in your opinion, it violates the rule of law and our stated codes of conduct? Or, do you oppose it on the purely utilitarian grounds that whatever the suspect says while under enhanced interrogation is automatically suspect as he will say anything in order to make the unbearable pain being inflicted upon him stop? Perhaps you don’t oppose this at all, and in fact believe the safety of the community overrides all other concerns.
You must decide upon your course of action soon because the torturers are getting ready to do their work. You see the tools of their trade being prepared – hammer, plier, knife, water board. If you don’t speak up, the suspect will shortly be screaming in agony and his words recorded and then taken to your superiors for analysis and interpretation. Maybe useful information could be extracted along with fingernails, but that is by no means certain. The choice, whether to proceed or not, is yours.
Before you decide, perhaps you should consider the report issued last week by the nonpartisan Constitution Project. It says, clearly and boldly in a way our mainstream press is too timid to do, that in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks the United States government indisputably engaged in the torture of suspected terrorists. Indeed, culpability goes all the way to the top, with the Constitution Project’s panel concluding that there had never before been, “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”
President George W. Bush and his cronies, therefore, had to make the same choice posed to you in the scenario above and decided to go along with the hammer-and-tongs crowd. In the torture regime that developed as a result of that decision – the first official torture program carried out by U.S. officials in its history – hundreds were rounded up, many kidnapped illegally and shipped to black sites in other countries, where they were subjected to Gestapo tactics intimately familiar to every secret police agency around the world.
Indeed, many of those same secret police agencies in fact cooperated with our Central Intelligence Agency to perform the round-up and torture that President Bush, implicitly or explicitly, ordered. From Poland to Egypt, Afghanistan to Algeria, and many countries in between, foreign intelligence agencies and security services, some working for the most despotic regimes in the world, assisted our government in putting to the question suspects gathered up on a global scale. Many in fact “disappeared” – sent to secret prisons from which they were never heard from again – unless they were lucky enough to be released.
One can get the sense of what went on, however, by perusing some of the 100,000 pages of government documents available through the American Civil Liberties Union’s online torture database, a collection of files released to the ACLU via Freedom of Information Act requests. They make for chilling reading. One document, for instance, lists the use of isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, slaps, “walling,” water dousing, forced stress positions and forced cramped confinement as routine methods of interrogation.
Another memo, also available online, describes the water boarding of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian detainee held in the U.S. “ghost prison” network who was once thought to be a high-value al-Qaeda operative. Water-boarded 83 times, Zubaydah has never been charged with any crime and the CIA has since determined he is neither a high-value operative nor an al-Qaeda fighter of any sort. He was, in fact, simply swept up with other suspects after the 9/11 attacks and held incommunicado for years thereafter. He now resides at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and video recordings of his interrogations sessions were among those “lost” by CIA officials in 2005.
The result of all this infliction of pain and suffering? By all accounts, very little. Indeed, the Constitution Project report states definitively that torture of detainees, despite what you may have seen while watching the CIA propaganda film “Zero Dark Thirty,” did nothing to aid U.S. efforts at combating anti-American terrorism in any way. In fact, if reports of false confessions wrung from tortured detainees that were then used by Bush administration officials to justify war in Iraq are true, then torture, and misplaced belief in its utility, led to the biggest U.S. foreign-policy disaster in many decades and the direct death of hundreds of thousands of human beings.
As Americans once again consider the proper response to terror attacks in the wake of the bombing of the Boston Marathon this past Monday, we would do well to remember what happened the last time we had to decide whether using torture in order to ensure our security was a good idea. Better men than those who ruled in the aftermath of 9/11 are arguably leading us today, but the choice to inflict pain and suffering as a means of gathering information nonetheless remains available to any chief executive willing to use it – if he or she thinks the public will accept it. With that in mind, and with the hard men awaiting your orders in the scenario presented above, how would you respond? Answer quickly, for the clock is ticking.
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