Let’s Get Realistic About Torture

Recently, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani was taking questions from the audience at a campaign stop when he was asked by a little boy what he would do in case the earth was attacked by aliens from another planet.

Everybody had a good laugh.

A few months before that, Giuliani was asked what he would do if he was faced with the classic “ticking time bomb”: would he torture prisoners or not?

Nobody laughed.

Likewise, nobody laughed when Tim Russert proposed substantially the same scenario to a bunch of Democratic hopefuls.

That’s because many people think that ticking time bomb scenarios are a crucial part of a “realistic” approach to the War on Terror and that people who don’t leave plenty of room for such scenarios in the moral calculus of the nation are dooming America.  The proof of this: the vigorous applause Giuliani got when he declared, “I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of.”   Similarly, the great “gotcha” moment of the Democratic debate (at least for Hillary Clinton) was the revelation that Bill Clinton would likewise authorize the use of torture in a ticking time bomb situation.

Ever since 9/11, Americans have been living in fear of the Next Big Attack.  And, having seen any number of Bruce Willis movies and episodes of 24, we have become convinced that the barely-averted horrors they portray require us to set aside the charming-but-outdated code of chivalry that used to guide the conduct of war and get down to brass tacks with waterboard and rubber hose.

Here’s the thing: as another GOP candidate, John McCain, pointed out, the actual odds of a ticking time bomb scenario are a million to one.  To have one, you need all these things to happen:

a) A weapon of mass destruction planted somewhere in the US.

b) We apprehend someone we know knows where it is and/or how to disarm it safely.

c) We really know that they know and we don’t just suspect it.

d) We have sufficient time to get it out of him using torture or other forms of coercion but insufficient time to find using any other way.

Now the reality is, getting all those circumstances to line up is extraordinarily slim: about the same as the likelihood of an attack by Klingons.  And yet candidates on both sides of the aisle (and their supporters) imagine that they are being “realistic” in predicating a national policy of legal torture on such scenarios.  This is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy.

Crazier still is the fact that a national policy of legal torture is not the stuff of some dystopic 1984 future.  It’s our policy now, under the Bush administration.  The executive has quietly acquired the power to declare anyone it likes an enemy combatant and, if it chooses, subject them to “enhanced interrogation” (a term first coined by the Gestapo) at various CIA black sites around the world.  How severe are the techniques used?  Well, there have already been several documented deaths, so it would appear that Mr. Bush is not being altogether accurate when he assures us “We do not torture.”

We need accurate intelligence in order to forestall another 9/11.  Transmogrifying America into a torture regime is not the way to achieve that goal.  Historically, intelligence was gained by cultivating a relationship with the subject of interrogation.  Instead of living in a Hollywood fantasy, presidential candidates should address the real danger of Caesar authorizing what the church calls a gravely immoral act.


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