Hard Questions on Interrogation

September 2nd, 2009

In his column in The Washington Post yesterday, Richard Cohen took a thoughtful approach to questions surrounding the controversy over enhanced interrocation techniques.  When the the absolutes of political ideology are stripped away, the questions that remain are very difficult to answer. 

Even the terms of the discussion are controversial and often misleading.  “Torture” is defined by one dictionary as:

The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.

I don’t think the thrust of that definition describes what was done to a very small number of captured terrorists in order to extract time-sensitive information from them.  The more the issue is politicized, the more the loaded word “torture” is thrown around to shut down the conversation.  Were the enhanced interrogation techniques employed by expert interrogators really “torture?”

The truth of the matter is that in war all manner of terrible things happen, things that make the treatment of these prisoners mild by comparison.  In fact, the treatment American POWs receive has always been much more harsh and often gratuitously cruel.  Does any of that make “torture” right?  Of course not; no moral person favors “torture.”  But what about the vigorous interrogation of terrorists who are known or reasonably suspected to have information that is so valuable that it would save many lives?     

Cohen posed the hard questions perfectly:

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group’s plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives — that they will be killed or sexually abused.

He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line — that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child’s? …

No one can possibly believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor. The captured terrorist of my fertile imagination, assuming he had access to an Internet cafe, knows about the special prosecutor. He knows his interrogator is under scrutiny. What person under those circumstances is going to spill his beans? …

I am torn between my desire for absolute security and my abhorrence of torture. The one thing I know is that ideology does not provide an answer. …

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions — torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.


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3 Responses to “Hard Questions on Interrogation”



  1. Laurie |

    Unfortunately, the issue is not really about safety, though I believe many sincerely believe the battle is over security vs. morality.

    I believe it is a battle over the definition of civilization. The definition of our very selves. Why did we proclaim “better dead than red” during the cold war? Why are our ways “better” than the enemy’s ways? Ultimately these are not abstract questions. These are the ones that will shape the world our children’s children’s children live in. Looking foward for several generations, will anyone be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? I pray so. If not, all the lives, on all sides, have been in vain.


  2. doris |

    I really have a problem with the term, enhanced interrogation. If we are not ashamed of it, then why do we need a pretty name? Sorta like, domestic engineer for housewife because you are afraid of what people will think of your lack of a “real” job. It’s torture — mean, vile, distasteful, horrible. All sides use it, all sides should not. If it saves lives, then until a new form of information getting comes along, I assume it will be with us. Most don’t like it, most would change it, but to prosecute those following orders and those trying to save their countries by it’s use is sheer maddness. Can you imagine any other country doing that? Of course not. What will be the purpose of it, what will we gain, respect from the terrorists? If the solution is not torture because it is immoral, what is the solution — turning the other cheek?


  3. Tom |

    Laurie, your comment goes mostly to the evil of war itself. War has been with us since the beginning of time, since human beings organized themselves in families, clans, tribes, and finally nations. They fought to advance their interests or to defend themselves from others who attacked for the same reason.

    I just finished a book on the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and its allies and Sparta and its allies for 27 long years, from 431 BC to 404 BC. It’s hard today to understand why these two city-states and their allies fought such a long, brutal, devastating war. But they knew why, and they understood the stakes — the survival of their respective forms of political and social existence. Athens and its chaotic direct democracy paid the agonizing price of defeat — the near destruction of their society.

    Most of today’s ill-educated young people don’t know squat about that ancient war, and they know little more about the U.S. Civil War or World War II. They even have little factual information about more recent events, such as Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. So how can our children’s children’s children be expected to explain the difference between good guys and bad guys over the generations when most don’t have a clue today?

    We can sit around in circles singing Kumbaya and chanting “give peace a chance” as long as we want, and it won’t make any difference. There will always be war, and I don’t ever want to be on the losing side. That’s when you really find out who the good guys and bad guys are.


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