Friday, December 2, 2005

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, recently proposed an amendment to a defense appropriations bill in an attempt to plug loopholes in existing anti-torture laws. The amendment, opposed by President Bush, is a good idea for America — but not necessarily for the reasons cited by most critics of the administration.

Contrary to popular belief, throughout history torture has brought results — either to gain critical, sometimes lifesaving intelligence or more gratuitously to obtain embarrassing confessions from terrified captives.

The question, then, for a liberal democracy is not whether torture in certain cases is effective but whether its value is worth the negative publicity and demoralizing effect on a consensual society that believes its cause and methods must enjoy a moral high ground far above the enemy’s.

Nor can opponents of torture say it is entirely foreign to the U.S. military experience, at least from what we know of it even in so-called good wars like World War II. There were American soldiers — sometimes in furor over the loss of comrades, sometimes to obtain critical information — who executed or tortured captured Japanese and German prisoners. Those who did so operated on a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding, occasionally found it effective and were rarely punished by commanding officers. Even so, G.I.s never descended to depravity common in the Wehrmacht or the Soviet and Imperial Japanese armies.

There is also not much to the argument that our use of torture will only embolden the enemy to barbarously treat American captives. What a silly idea. Captured Americans have already been filmed being beheaded — or shot or burned — and their mutilated corpses hung up for public ridicule.

We know from both its professed creed and its conduct in the field that al Qaeda cares nothing for civilized behavior. Its barbarism is innate, not predicated on any notion of reciprocity. Prisoners were beheaded and tortured before the sexual humiliation so amply photographed at Abu Ghraib. U.S. soldiers already grasp what surrender to al Qaeda terrorists means; they’ve seen other Westerners appear hooded on the Internet before losing their heads to choruses of “Allah Akhbar.”

Others argue that by employing torture we will only earn the censure of the liberal, especially European, world. Maybe so, but once again, Europe, the United Nations and international human-rights groups, for reasons that transcend the war in Iraq, will fault the United States no matter what it does.

Castigating our misdemeanors while mostly ignoring the felonies of real barbarians seems to ensure these sidelined utopians’ easy moral smugness. We see that in regard to Guantanamo. Europeans fixate on American interrogations of captive murderous terrorists but remain silent about thousands who have been killed, tortured or forgotten in Fidel Castro’s gulag a few miles away. Iran, North Korea, Serbia and Saddam’s Iraq tortured and executed tens of thousands without much fear either the U.N. or the Europeans would spend their own lives and treasure to stop such endemic barbarism.

There is also a danger that once we try to quantify precisely what constitutes torture, we could, in the ensuing utopian debate, define anything from sleep deprivation to loud noise as unacceptable. Indeed, we might achieve the unintended effect of only creating disdain for our moral pretensions from incarcerated terrorists. They would have no worries of suffering pain but plenty of new demands on their legalistic hosts, from ethnically correct meals to proper handling of their Korans.

So we might as well admit that by forswearing the use of torture, we will probably be put at a disadvantage in obtaining key information and perhaps endanger American lives here at home. (And, ironically, those who now allege we are too rough will no doubt decry “faulty intelligence” and “incompetence” if there is another terrorist attack on a U.S. city.)

Our restraint will not ensure any better treatment for our own captured soldiers. Nor will our allies or the U.S. appreciate our forbearance. The terrorists themselves will probably disdain our magnanimity, as if we were weak rather than good.

But all that is precisely the risk we must take in supporting the McCain amendment — because it is a public reaffirmation of our country’s ideals. The United States can win this global war without employing torture. That we will not resort to what comes so naturally to Islamic terrorists also defines the nobility of our cause, reminding us we need not and will not become anything like our enemies.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”

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