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In Torture We Trust? | The Nation

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In Torture We Trust?

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Lurking behind such comments is the specter of the so-called "ticking bomb": the captive who knows of an imminent attack that will cost thousands of lives, imagined vividly on February 4 in the hit Fox series 24, in which US agents used electroshock to extract a confession about an impending nuclear attack.

This article was originally published in the March 31, 2003 issue of The Nation. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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Should an exceptional captive such as Mohammed be tortured to extract potentially lifesaving information? The Nation spoke with several prominent theorists of ethics, human rights and the law, all of whom acknowledged that this is very difficult emotional terrain, even if there is, in the end, only one truly ethical answer. Martha Nussbaum, a professor at the University of Chicago who has written several books on ethics and human rights, offered a frank--and somewhat jarring--admission. "I don't think any sensible moral position would deny that there might be some imaginable situations in which torture [of a particular individual] is justified," Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail to The Nation.

But as Nussbaum went on to note, in the real world, governments don't just torture ticking time bombs: They torture their enemies, under circumstances that routinely stray from the isolated, extreme scenario. Even the most scrupulous regime is bound to do so, for the simple reason that nobody can know for certain whether a suspect really is a ticking bomb. "There's an inevitable uncertainty," explains Georgetown law professor David Cole, the author of Terrorism and the Constitution and a forthcoming book on September 11 and civil liberties. "You can't know whether a person knows where the bomb is, or even if they're telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general." So while Cole and Nussbaum can imagine scenarios where torture might constitute a lesser evil, both favor a "bright line," in Cole's words, banning the practice.

Henry Shue, a professor of politics and international relations at Oxford who has published an influential academic article on torture, points out that the French experience in Algeria is illustrative. Though justified as a rare measure to prevent imminent assaults on civilians, says Shue, torture quickly spread through the French security apparatus "like a cancer." "The problem is that torture is a shortcut, and everybody loves a shortcut," Shue says. "I think it's a fantasy to believe that the United States is that much better than anybody else in this respect."

The Algerian experience recurred in Israel, where, until the Israeli Supreme Court formally banned the practice in 1999, preventing "ticking bombs" from carrying out suicide attacks served as the justification for hooding, beating and abusing hundreds of Palestinians. "Very quickly, from a rare exception torture in Israel became standard practice, in part because the ticking bomb metaphor is infinitely expandable," says Human Rights Watch's Roth. "Why stop with the bomber? Why not torture the person who could introduce you to the cousin who knows someone who planted the bomb? Why not torture the wife and kids? Friends? All of this becomes justified."

And once torture becomes common practice, it severely undermines a society's democratic norms. As Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on the Middle East, writes in his new book, The Stakes, "We cannot defend what we stand for by subverting our own values in the process." In the current climate, conservatives may dismiss such talk as soft-minded idealism. In fact, nobody has more adamantly insisted that the war on terrorism is, at root, a conflict about values than George W. Bush. In his recent State of the Union address, the President catalogued the torture methods administered to prisoners in Iraq. "Electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills," Bush said. "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning."

For the same government that denounces such practices to soften the rules when its own interests are at stake sends a disturbing message: that American moralizing is meaningless. That the United States is willing to dehumanize its enemies in much the way that it complains Islamic terrorists dehumanize theirs.

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