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Why We Ban Torture

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On April 16, President Obama released the now-infamous torture memos along with a covering statement that said the CIA's old interrogation methods not only failed to "make us safer" but undermined "our moral authority." A week later, a woman holding the hand of a child walked into a throng in Baghdad and blew herself up. Apparently she had not heard of our new moral authority.

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That term -- "moral authority" -- gets used a lot. There is such a thing, I suppose, although a suicide bomber probably thinks he or she has it in abundance. Whatever it may be, however, it is an awfully thin reed upon which to construct a foreign policy. I, for one, am glad we're no longer torturing anyone, but ceasing this foul practice will not in any way make Americans safer. We prohibit torture for other reasons.

Yet the debate over torture has been infected with silly arguments about utility: whether it works or not. Of course it works -- sometimes or rarely, but if a proverbial bomb is ticking, that may just be the one time it works. I refer you to the 1995 interrogation by Philippine authorities of Abdul Hakim Murad, an al-Qaeda terrorist who served up extremely useful information about a plot to blow up airliners when he was told that he was about to be turned over to Israel's Mossad. As George Orwell suggested in "1984," everyone has his own idea of torture.

If the threat of torture works -- if it has worked at least once -- then it follows that torture itself would work. Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can't all be fools or knaves. This is also the position of Dick Cheney, who can sometimes be both, but in this, at least, he has some support.

America should repudiate torture not because it is always ineffective -- nothing is always anything -- or because others loathe it but because it degrades us and runs counter to our national values. It is a statement of principle, somewhat similar to why we do not tap all phones or stop and frisk everyone under the age of 28. Those measures would certainly reduce crime, but they are abhorrent to us.

But it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist called "our moral compass." George Bush was certainly disliked in much of the world, but the Sept. 11 attacks were planned while Bill Clinton was in office, and he offended no one with the possible exception of the Christian right. Indeed, he went around the world apologizing for America's misdeeds -- slavery, in particular. No terrorist turned back as a result.

If Obama thinks the world will respond to his new torture policy, he is seriously misguided. Indeed, he has made things a bit easier for terrorists who now know what will not happen to them if they get caught. And by waffling over whether he will entertain the prosecution of Bush-era Justice Department lawyers (and possibly CIA interrogators as well), he has shown agents in the field that he is behind them, oh, about 62 percent of the time.

The horror of Sept. 11 resides in me like a dormant pathogen. It took a long time before I could pass a New York fire station -- the memorials still fresh -- without tearing up. I vowed vengeance that day -- yes, good Old Testament-style vengeance -- and that ember glows within me still. I know that nothing Obama did this month about torture made America safer.

But as I was reading the Bush administration's torture memos, I was also finishing Richard J. Evans's "The Third Reich at War." It is the last of his masterful trilogy on Nazi Germany and, like his two previous works, contains the sort of detail that assaults the eyes, overwhelms reason and instructs what we -- yes, ordinary people -- were capable of doing.

I know it is offensive to compare almost anyone or anything to the Nazis, but the Bush-era memos struck me as echoes from the past. Here, once again, were the squalid efforts of legal toadies to justify the unjustifiable. Here, again, was a lesson that needs constant refreshing: Before you can torture anyone, you must first torture the law. When that happens, we are all on the rack.

cohenr@washpost.com


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