Torture serves tyrants
The Associated Press recently administered a political IQ test, and 61 percent of the American public flunked. Needless to say, they didn’t call it that. “Poll finds broad approval of terrorist torture,” the headline read. More than three out of five Americans surveyed “agreed [that ] torture is justified at least on rare occasions,” although the article never hinted what those occasions might be. Nor did the AP reveal how the question was put, making the poll useless for any purpose except starting arguments—exactly my purpose here. The article quoted exactly one respondent: “I don’t think we should go out and string
everybody up by their thumbs until somebody talks,” said a retiree from Tomball, Texas. “But if there is definitely a good reason to get an answer, we should do whatever it takes.” Sounds to me like somebody in Tomball’s been watching too many rogue-cop melodramas on TV. The genre pretty much originated with “Dirty Harry,” a 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle featuring Inspector Harry Callahan, a San Francisco officer with a chip on his shoulder and a hogleg. 44-caliber Magnum on his hip. Surrounded by foppish politicians and cowardly bureaucrats more concerned with a sadistic killer’s constitutional rights than his victim’s safety, Callahan throws away the rule book and saves the pretty girl.
I expect most respondents were thinking of roughly that scenario, repeated in a thousand cop and spy melodramas, when they countenanced torture. In the movies, the heroes always know two things: the Bad Guy’s identity and exactly what “intelligence” they need (where he’s buried the girl alive, the secret code, the whereabouts of the terrorist bomb, etc.). Chances are the country-club toughs around President Bush imagined something like it when they authorized U. S. agents to inflict pain falling just short of “organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” (The policy has since been rescinded.)
Alas, situations like that happen only in movies. Real-world circumstances are always murkier. Intelligence agents often can’t be sure who they’re talking to, much less what they need to know. Two recent instances demonstrate why torturing even terrorist suspects tends to be, at best, counter-productive.
Consider the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qa’ida operative captured in Pakistan and questioned by CIA agents in Afghanistan, then secretly sent to Egypt for exposure to the tender mercies of that Arab nation’s intelligence agents. Al-Libi, whose identity was never in doubt, later said that he was coerced to tell his captors exactly what they wanted to hear, which turned out to be exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted them to believe: that his enemy, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, was actually his friend.
If the Great Satan attacked the Lesser Satan, so much the better.
Al-Libi conjured up stories about Saddam’s agents supposedly training bin Laden’s terrorists to use explosives and chemical weapons—imaginary tales straight out of the “Arabian Nights." They so lacked verifiable particulars that analysts at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that they were fabrications designed to appease Egyptian interrogators.
Nevertheless, al-Libi’s make-believe made it directly into a speech by Bush, who claimed in October 2002 that "we’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qa’ida members in bomb making and poisons and gases.” Secretary of State Colin Powell also gave credence to al-Libi’s falsehoods, which he has since recanted. So did Vice President Dick Cheney.
If history teaches anything, it’s that “intelligence” agencies in authoritarian regimes like Egypt’s—also Stalin’s Russia and Pinochet’s Chile and, for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition—aren’t about compiling accurate information at all. They’re about securing phony confessions and telling Big Brother exactly what he wants to hear.
Torture isn’t about gathering intelligence, it’s about sadism, power and
the manufacture of fear. That’s part of what Sen. John McCain means when he says that ending terror isn’t about them, the terrorists, it’s about us. Torture can’t protect a democracy. But it can eventually destroy one. Thinking otherwise is almost criminally naïve. Then there’s the case of Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent reportedly kidnapped by U.S. agents dressed in black, injected with drugs, given a forced enema, dressed in an adult diaper, handcuffed in a spreadeagle position, and taken to remotest Afghanistan and roughed up for months in a Kafka-esque case of mistaken identity. Embarrassed American agents told The Washington Post’s Dana Priest that the official who ramrodded the mission, a great favorite in the Bush White House naturally, had embraced a “Hollywood model” of operations guaranteed to generate bad publicity rather than useful intelligence. During her recent disastrous “Condi Over Europe” tour, the secretary of state heard a lot more about poor al-Masri than she wanted to. Before dismissing our allies’ complaints as the whining of Euroweenies, try this on for size: How would you react to German agents snatching Americans off the street and dragging them off to Third World dungeons?
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
Lily Tomlin said it best. "No matter how cynical I get, I just can't keep up."
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