At Fox’s second Republican presidential candidate debate, the lack of imagination was predictable. Somehow, when Britt Hume announced he was going to propose a hypothetical scenario, I knew a “24“-style torture scenario was about to follow. Hume didn’t disappoint. But I was struck by the sheer sense of glee displayed by so many of the candidates. Of course, the exception was John McCain, who actually knows torture first hand. Perhaps most shocking, was Mitt Romney’s declaration that we should double the number of detainees in Guantanamo, specifically so we could deny them of their civil rights!
The argument is often made that we need to retain the right to torture, in order to obtain information from suspected terrorists, to stop future terrorist attacks. The "ticking time bomb" scenario, popularized by law professor Alan Dershowitz, is often used to make this point: As the scenario goes, a suspected terrorist knows when and where the next terrorist attack will take place, and we only have so much time to get the information out of him. Thus, we have to resort to torture.
But the scenario makes some assumptions that are rarely realized in real life. For instance, we rarely know for certain that the suspect has the information that we want. And we rarely know how much time we have. In fact, we don't know that anything the suspect tells us is true; history shows us that torture rarely gives us useful information - the torture victim will often say whatever it is he thinks we want to hear, in order to get the torture to stop.
Many experienced interrogators will tell you that torture is counter-productive. In some cases, harsh treatment merely sabotages previous efforts at building a relationship with a suspect. In fact, recent reports that "bad intelligence" leading to the Iraq War came from a prisoner who was sent, through "extraordinary rendition," to Egypt, tragically illustrate the point. He recanted the information once he was returned to the U.S., claiming he had made the story up to avoid harsh treatment.
In addition to being counterproductive and immoral, torture does great damage to our reputation internationally. The argument is often made that, if only the media would stop reporting on what the military and intelligence services are doing, we could get on with the task of fighting terrorism. But, in the end, news of torture will always get out. And when it does, the threat of terrorism worldwide will only increase, not decrease.
Sadly, the legacies of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have not been limited to sexual humiliation, psychological intimidation, and painful positions. Over 100 people have died in U.S. custody, according to recent records the Pentagon revealed to the Associated Press. Most of them died violently. The American Civil Liberties Union alone has documented forty-four deaths, twenty-one ruled as homicides. It might be tempting to ask: why should we worry about these detainees? After all, aren't they terrorists? Not even close.
The International Red Cross determined, in 2004, that 70 to 90 percent of American detainees in Iraq were innocent of any ties to terrorism. They based this conclusion, in part, on what coalition officers told them; so we can’t label all detainees as terrorists.
Of course, all these inconvenient facts make the glee of Romney and the rest of the pro-torture gang all the more shocking. It would be nice if the Republican Party could move beyond this adolescent view of war and justice. Absent that, the Democrats should voice their outrage at their lawlessness.