Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The price of torture

Awash in a sea of bad news, the administration released a report that captured al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed had confessed to masterminding the September 11th attacks, murdering journalist Daniel Pearl and being responsible for a variety of other crimes. In fact, it seems he was everywhere and involved in everything. All that was missing was his admission to involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and to being the second assassin on the grassy knoll in Dallas.

The news of his confessions was met with an almost universal indifference. Of course he confessed. He’ll confess to anything. He was tortured.

Was he really tortured? Reportedly he was initially but we don’t know to what extent his confessions were coerced. Are his confessions true? He most likely had some greater or lesser involvement in many of the crimes he recited. But the point here is there is widespread belief his confessions were coerced under torture and therefore are doubtful.

When the Bush administration took this country down the slippery slope of cutting corners on the treatment of prisoners-of-war deemed enemy combatants and by engaging in torture or the threat of torture they did more than carry us out over moral thin ice. The net effect has been to weaken the United States by destroying American credibility both at home and abroad. It has become a common assumption U.S. authorities torture, whether they do or not, to the point that our closest allies distance themselves from us. The virtues of credibility and moral leadership are not abstract; they are as empowering as the number of tanks on the battlefield or aircraft carriers on the sea. The fact these virtues are in doubt makes us a weaker nation than we have been since the beginning of World War II. Others will not follow because we think we are the good guys, others will follow because they think we are the good guys. That’s power.

Anne Applebaum discusses about the issue in today’s Washington Post:
Here is one thing nobody predicted back in 2003: that when the notorious Mohammed eventually stood before a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal and took responsibility not only for the Sept. 11 attacks, the deadliest crime ever carried out on American soil, but also for the horrific death of the journalist Daniel Pearl and some two dozen other operations, the world would greet the confessions with skepticism and indifference.

The Daily Telegraph, normally the most pro-American newspaper in Britain, wrote that it hardly mattered whether Mohammed was guilty, since whatever conclusion is drawn by the military tribunal that will try him, "the world will condemn the procedures by which the verdicts were reached." Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung concluded that "the Bush administration has nobody but itself to blame for the fact that the actions and motives of the perpetrator are now playing second fiddle to the practices used by the Americans in fighting terrorism." In many places, the confessions, which took place nearly a week ago, still have hardly attracted attention.

It is true that the administration has now stated clearly that torture, at least by the administration's definition, was not used in Mohammed's interrogation. ("We don't do torture" is how the White House press secretary cavalierly put it.) But even if we were to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, which hardly anyone will, the circumstances of Mohammed's detention have been unacceptable by American standards. Even if he was not tortured, he was held in secret, extralegal and completely unregulated conditions, possibly in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, certainly under nothing resembling what we in the United States normally consider the rule of law, either international or domestic. The mystery surrounding his interrogation -- when it was carried out, how and by whom -- renders any confession he makes completely null, either in a court of law or in the court of international public opinion.

This is concrete proof, as if more were needed, that it is not merely immoral to operate outside the rule of law; it is also ineffective and in fact profoundly counterproductive: There is no proof that it produces better information but plenty of evidence that it has discredited the United States. Indeed, there could be no more eloquent condemnation of the Bush administration's torture and detention policies than the deafening silence that followed Mohammed's confession: Who could have imagined, in September of 2001, that one of the deadliest terrorists in history would admit to the destruction of the World Trade Center -- and that the world would shrug its shoulders?
Her column also appeared in Slate and you can read the entire piece here.

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