“And the winner is… .” When those words were uttered at the Academy Awards we knew it would not be “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film, although critically acclaimed, was criticized for condoning the torture of terrorists. The debate is ongoing about whether the enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorists were necessary for the prevention of future attacks, and whether they were, in fact, “torture.”
On one side, we’re warned that if we torture, we will become like terrorists. As Nietzsche admonished, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” While we cannot coddle terrorist prisoners and hope that they will change, we also cannot respond callously with, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” Neither position is realistically an effective means of dealing with the issue.
What is a viable solution for captured terrorists is solitary confinement, an often enigmatic technique used by correctional systems.
The words conjure up visions of Alexander Dumas’ “The Man in the Iron Mask” or Steve McQueen’s portrayal of Henri “Papillion” Charriere in the French penal colony of Devil’s Island. We picture prisoners in dark dungeons, eating cockroaches and spiders and slowly going mad. Is this an accurate description?
Last month, George Will wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post regarding solitary confinement. He thinks that such confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, a form of torture. He cited the Supreme Court case of James J. Medley, a convicted murderer who was kept in solitary confinement awaiting execution in 1890 in Colorado.
There was not unanimous agreement on the issue at that time. The dissenting justice in the case, David J. Brewer, said, “It seems a misnomer to call this ‘solitary confinement,’ in the harsh sense in which this phrase is sometimes used. All that is meant is that a condemned murderer shall not be permitted to hold anything like a public reception.”
Because of the disagreement, Medley, a convicted murderer, was set free.
Solitary confinement is not social deprivation. It is a managed social setting, controlled not by the criminal, but by prison administrators following generally accepted standards. Those conditions are anything but torture.
Both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state correctional agencies follow strict guidelines for operating a Special Housing Unit, where inmates removed from the general prison population are held.
As one who has both worked in and toured these units, I can tell you the inmates residing in them are not living in solitude. They are visited daily by security staff, medical staff, counseling staff, clergy and administrative staff. They just don’t get to pick and choose whom they see, call or socialize with. Isn’t the purpose of prison the removal of individuals from society at large? Prison is not supposed to be a pleasant place. While prisons should be humane, they should not be enjoyable. Inmates will always complain about their conditions. In the Netherlands, where inmates have private cells with television, some would consider it torture to remove the convicts’ TV.
Is it wrong to isolate terrorists from the general prison population? No. In fact, there can be great danger posed by allowing terrorists to move about within the confines of the walls as they will. One of the architects of the first World Trade Center bombing was an inmate in Attica State Prison, El Sayiid Nosair. Kevin James, an inmate in California’s Folsom State Prison, formed a terrorist group, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam, and oversaw its operation, which included plots to attack U.S. military installations, from his prison cell. Both inmates used the privileges afforded them in the general prison population to reach beyond the walls.
Others have used their stature in the prison community to recruit or influence others. It was thought that enforcing strict administrative measures would be an effective way of neutralizing incarcerated terrorists. That has been tested in recent years in the courts.
John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, won a case against the Federal Bureau of Prisons after challenging his conditions of confinement. Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, serving a life sentence for the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Tanzania, sued to be placed in the general prison population. Now Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, has petitioned the court to be released from solitary confinement.
This is the individual whom sentencing Judge Kevin Duffy described as “an apostle of evil” and “a virus that must be locked away.” We quarantine viruses until there is a cure.
Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the attacks of Sept.11, 2001, still pose a threat to the health of this nation. When contemplating how to effectively deal with captured terrorists, I’m reminded not of Nietzsche, but of a line in a Tom Waits song: “You gotta keep the devil down in the hole.”