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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 1/18/09

Qahtani and the Case Against Torture

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When I've argued in the past against the use of torture, it has typically been from an ethical and human rights perspective. Torture is inhumane and morally wrong.

Those are still very valid reasons to oppose the use of torture by anyone, including U.S. agents who deal with suspected terrorists. We're supposed to be above that kind of brutality.

And, from a practical perspective, intelligence experts generally agree that torture simply does not work. It is not a reliable way of producing actionable intelligence. Under torture, a detainee will likely say whatever he thinks his interrogator wants to hear, just to make the pain stop. And so he will confess to things he never did, or provide incorrect names or other data. Ask John McCain, who, when asked under torture in Vietnam to provide his captors with the names of the members of his flight squadron, instead rattled off the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, "knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse."

But sometimes torture does result in factual information. Such might be true in the case of Gitmo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani, at least according to prosecutors who want to pursue their case against him for his alleged involvement in planning the 9/11 attacks.

But, under U.S. and international law, evidence extracted by torture is inadmissible in court. And rightly so. It would be unethical, and the evidence itself would be unreliable.

So Judge Susan Crawford has thrown out the military's case against Qahtani.

This now illustrates yet another problem with torture. Qahtani might indeed be a dangerous individual, but we can't prove it in court because we tortured it out of him. So what do we do? Continue imprisoning someone who cannot be proven guilty? Or let him go, knowing that he might well pose a threat? Neither alternative is a good one. And we're stuck between a rock and a hard place because some government thugs felt the need to horribly abuse another human being who might -- just might -- be a terrorist.

Torture clearly does nothing to make us safer. When we torture, we run the risk of falling into situations like the Qahtani dilemma. Furthermore, by torturing our terrorism suspects, we are giving the enemy more reason to hate us, and more reason to torture any American that they can capture, as retaliation for the way we treat their captured brethren.

I hope our next Commander in Chief will take a lesson from his predecessor George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, Washington instructed his troops to treat their captured prisoners of war humanely. "Treat them with humanity," he told his troops, "and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren."

And it follows that all who have engaged in torture should be held accountable for their crimes. Otherwise, the laws against it remain fragile.
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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
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