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Torture's Ugly Dialogue

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Call him Ishmael.

Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing -- no, anxious -- to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

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Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives -- that they will be killed or sexually abused.

He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line -- that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?

Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators -- they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail -- a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated.

No one can possibly believe that America is now safer because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor. The captured terrorist of my fertile imagination, assuming he had access to an Internet cafe, knows about the special prosecutor. He knows his interrogator is under scrutiny. What person under those circumstances is going to spill his beans?

Ah yes, the interrogator must build rapport with the captured terrorist. That might work, but it would take time. It could take a lot of time. Building rapport is clearly the preferred method, but the terrorist is going to know all about it. He will bide his time. How much time do we have?

The CIA inspector general's report on the quite brutal interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the so-called Sept. 11 mastermind, suggests he only turned cooperative when he was repeatedly waterboarded and that the information he provided saved lives. Yet so much was redacted from the report that it is not clear that this is unambiguously the case. Maybe no lives were saved. Maybe Mohammed was waterboarded more than 100 times for nothing. It is an appalling possibility.

I am, as you can see, full of questions. I have, as you can see, few answers.

I am torn between my desire for absolute security and my abhorrence of torture. The one thing I know is that ideology does not provide an answer. For me, it settles nothing that Dick Cheney supported enhanced interrogation and that Cheney was wrong and deceitful on the war. It settles nothing that Cheney defined torture as something so extreme that almost anything less than, say, the rack is permissible interrogation. The issue is not Cheney. The issue is the issue.

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions -- torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.

cohenr@washpost.com


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