The role of torture in procuring information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden has become one of the principal sources of debate this week. That debate highlights some of the intractable differences among foreign policy experts and it also indicates the distorted way some Catholics view politics.
Of course, it will be many years before historians sift through the mostly classified evidence surrounding the interrogation of terrorists in the past decade. And, historians by training learn that they must let the evidence tell the story, not try and cram that evidence into an existing narrative fashioned out of other, non-historical, ambitions. Now, and for the foreseeable future, the two sides in the debate will use whatever evidence supports their case and neglect the evidence that undermines it.
What we know is that some of the initial evidence that started U.S. intelligence agencies on the road that led to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad came from detainees who had been subjected to torture or, as the defenders of the practice call it, enhanced interrogation techniques. It is also clear that the information came in the course of regular interrogation, not water-boarding, and the information came some months later. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was not still dripping wet from being water-boarded when he revealed that he knew the courier who eventually led U.S. intelligence to bin Laden. So, supporters of torture can argue, as Marc Theissen did in this morning’s Washington Post, that the water-boarding induced KSM to talk while opponents of torture can argue that it was not the water-boarding but the standard interrogation that led him to give up the name.
There is another chink in the logical armor of the argument but forth by proponents of torture. We can never know if we might not have garnered this information from KSM and others if they had never been subjected to torture in the first place. We might have even gotten the information sooner. We will never know the answer to that question. History is filled with “what ifs” and this is one of them.
What is clear is that the use of torture has made criminal prosecution of terrorists nearly impossible. Information extracted by normal methods of interrogation is admissible in a court of law. Information gleaned from torture is not. This is an important fact because it is one of the more significant achievements of the rule of law and of Western civilization. Once upon a time, torture was commonly used to extract information that was then used to achieve desirable verdicts. The fact that the information was unreliable did not matter. That was the age of might makes right, and all that. It has given way to the age of robust legal structures premised on ideas of human dignity, fair play and justice, an age that has rejected the idea that might does not make right, an age in which no man, including the sovereign, is above the law.
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Those who advocate a return to Star Chamber forms of justice must face up to the fact that they are part of the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI has denounced. To them, we are permitted to torture the bad guys because it works. (I set aside the debate about the effectiveness of torture, although it is far from clear that torture really “works.”) Traditional marriage, alas, is not the only Western institution that is being attacked by the forces of relativism. Re-introducing torture is a huge step away from one of our principal civilizational achievements.
In recent years, some conservative Catholic commentators such a Princeton professor Robert George have argued that there are certain non-negotiable items on the Catholic Church’s political agenda, and that these items are non-negotiable because they involve intrinsic evils. They cite abortion as one such intrinsic evil. To be clear: Of course abortion is an intrinsic evil. No Catholic can think otherwise. But there are dozens of things that are intrinsically evil and you can’t just pick five out of the hat and say that these are the non-negotiable items. It will be curious to see if Professor George and others will join the debate on torture which is, undeniably, an intrinsic evil. Will this become “non-negotiable”? Marc Theissen, you may recall, set forth his defense of torture in a puffy interview on “The World Over” on EWTN. I do not recall Raymond Arroyo raising the question of intrinsic evil.
I range myself among those who oppose the use of torture. Even if it were proven to work, I would oppose it. I can’t for the life of me see how we can “win” the war against terrorism by abandoning the very standards of civilized life that they are attacking. It can’t be said often enough. Al-Qaeda is not Nazi Germany. It does not have access to several millions of people and the industrial might of central Europe. Al-Qaeda can inflict grievous suffering but it can’t overrun Europe. What it can do, what it aims to do, is so frighten us that it gets us to descend to their level, to abandon our rule of law, our beliefs about human dignity, our commitment to equality for women, our understanding that differences of belief cannot be resolved on the battlefield or the chopping block. That is why we call them terrorists – they seek to scare us into changing in ways they want. The President’s order to desist from torture was itself a victory over Al-Qaeda, a statement that we shall not be terrorized into abandoning our jurisprudence because it suits our political objectives.
Note to Readers: My computer is at the computer doctor and I am using a friend's computer that seem unwilling to permit me to enter links to articles cited. Mr. Thiessen's article in this morning's Post is easily found at the Post website under "Opinions." My computer should be back in my hands later today. I apologize for the inconvenience.