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Defining Torture
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 11/16/07

It seems like nearly every politician, columnist and editorial writer has gone to great lengths to express opposition to the use of torture in interrogating enemy agents including known terrorists. It is morally wrong, barbaric and anti-American, they say, and under no circumstances should it be employed because it demeans us as a civilized people. We are better than our enemies, they add, and we must never surrender the moral high ground or we descend to their level.

It is difficult to take issue with such noble sentiments without coming across as some sort of monster. But just how do we define torture? My heaviest dictionary defines it as the act or method of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information or for sheer cruelty. It’s true that we tend to use the term loosely as, for example, in the following statement: “Senate Democrats put Michael Mukasy through sheer torture over his refusal to say whether waterboarding constitutes torture before narrowly confirming him as attorney general”. But before we create new and perhaps unnecessary laws or policies such as the banning of waterboarding, we need to be more precise as to what constitutes torture and how far we should go in limiting our ability to extract information from terrorists that could save innocent lives, perhaps thousands of them.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Critics of the administration’s conduct of the war on terrorism tend to greatly expand both the meaning of torture and the list of prohibitions they want imposed upon military and CIA interrogators. (The military already prohibits the use of torture.) They want an end to overly-harsh, demeaning, insulting, humiliating or cruel actions during interrogations. Demeaning and humiliating actions by military personnel formed the basis for the Abu Ghraib brouhaha. Somehow, critics of the war in Iraq managed to make the leap from humiliation to torture; a jump of rather Olympic proportions. The definition of torture speaks of the infliction of excruciating pain. It is silent regarding embarrassment.

Arguments for banning waterboarding include the oft-repeated allegation that torture, however defined, doesn’t work because at some point, the victims will say anything to stop the torture. That may be true in cases where the detainees are only suspected of having the desired information. It is not the case, however, when interrogators know with certainty that the detainee has the needed information, say, regarding an imminent terrorist attack. Indeed, many such attacks have been averted by harsh interrogation methods that today’s anti-war politicians would probably label torture.

So ask yourself if you would condone the use of harsh interrogation methods including, for example, threats, discomfort and sleep deprivation, to extract information that could save lives. Law enforcement officials, of course, already do that. So do drill sergeants and boot camp instructors. How about demeaning and humiliating actions against known terrorists? Remember now, we are not talking about uniformed combatants entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.

Let’s put it on a more personal basis. It’s easy to be righteous when one is talking about someone else’s life or someone else’s family members. Suppose, God forbid, your own family members were being held hostage and the authorities had in custody a person who knew their whereabouts. Would you condone, perhaps insist upon, the use of harsh interrogation methods including threats and deception? How about humiliating and demeaning treatment? How about waterboarding, if the other methods didn’t work? Just how far would you go to exploit every opportunity to recover your family members?

All theoretical questions, you say? Not for military and CIA personnel interrogating known terrorists, known to have information that could prevent an imminent terrorist attack that would kill innocent people and inflict excruciating pain upon others.

War imposes countless ethical dilemmas. Consider again how far we went to win and end World War II. The firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo and Yokohama and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki incinerated hundreds and thousands of civilians. We did it to shorten the war and save American lives. How far would we be willing to go to save them today? Americans, including politicians opposed to the administration’s conduct of the war on terrorism, who are uncomfortable trying to answer that question, should at least refrain from imposing unnecessary restrictions and definitions on those whose duties and responsibilities require that they do make such decisions. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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