- The Washington Times - Monday, November 5, 2001

It's the sort of question that, way back in spring semester, would have made for a good late-night bull session in a college dorm room: If an atomic bomb were about to be detonated in Manhattan, would police be justified in torturing the terrorist who planted it to learn its location and save the city? But today, the debates are starting up in the higher reaches of the federal government. And this time, the answers really matter.

Last week, The Washington Post reported great frustration in the FBI and Justice Department over the stubborn silence of four suspected terrorists arrested after September 11, including one who wanted lessons in steering a commercial aircraft but had no interest in taking off or landing. Unless they can administer truth serum or torture, law enforcement officials fear, they may never get information about planned attacks that are still in the works. American lives could therefore be lost.

The question posed above is easy to answer. No one could possibly justify sacrificing millions of lives to spare a murderous psychopath a brief spell of intense pain, which he can end by his own choice. When the threat is so gigantic and the solution so simple, we are all in the camp of the Shakespeare character who said, "There is no virtue like necessity."

This indulgence of reality requires no great rethinking of fundamental principles. Rules that suffice for normal circumstances often have to be suspended for emergencies. We have laws against burglary and theft, and for good reason: Society couldn't function if homes and property had no protection. But if a starving plane-crash victim stranded in the wild broke into a locked cabin to get food, he wouldn't be sent to prison.

The complications of the torture issue arise once you move from the extreme hypothetical case to the messiness and uncertainty of the real world. Almost everyone would agree it's permissible to use forcible interrogation methods to prevent nuclear holocaust. But it's impossible to write a law that restricts the use of torture to cases where (1) a considerable number of lives are in peril, and (2) police are sure they have a guilty party who can provide the information needed to avert the catastrophe. The brutal techniques are therefore likely to spread.

We know that from experience. Most states that employ torture do it pretty much anytime it suits their law enforcement purposes. And Israel, the rare government to attempt to impose clear standards and limits on the use of coercion, found that the exception threatened to swallow the rule.

With an eye to the "ticking bomb" scenario, Israel authorized the use of "moderate physical pressure" to persuade suspected terrorists to talk including shaking them, covering their heads with foul-smelling hoods, putting them in cold showers, depriving them of sleep for days on end, forcing them to crouch in awkward positions, and the like. These were needed, the government said, because of the constant threat of Palestinian attacks on civilian and military targets. And, besides, they weren't really torture.

But this option quickly expanded beyond the cases where it might be excused. An Israeli human-rights group that successfully challenged these methods in court said that 85 percent of Arabs arrested by the General Security Service each year including many never charged with a crime were subjected to such abuse. That works out to thousands of victims over the years.

Israel found its carefully controlled approach escaping control in two ways. First, the brutal techniques were soon used in routine cases, not just extreme ones. Second, "moderate" pressure sometimes became immoderate: An estimated 10 detainees died from their mistreatment.

The problem is not with Israel but with human nature. To a man with a hammer, said Mark Twain, everything looks like a nail. Give police and security agents in any country a tool, and they'll want to use it, and even overuse it. If the government were to torture the suspects arrested after September 11, it might find they don't know anything important.

There are, of course, other options for inducing cooperation from suspected lawbreakers, including carrots (light sentences, money, relocation with a new identity) and sticks (long sentences, extradition to countries known for harsh punishments). That strategy has worked on other terrorists, like the one caught trying to sneak explosives into the U.S. for a millennium attack.

So it would not be wise to formally authorize the use of torture to combat terrorism. And what if the cops someday have to try it to save New York City from a nuclear blast? I trust they'll do what they have to do, and forgiveness will follow.

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