Monday, June 30, 2008

Terrorism and Torture

A brief item in the newspaper reports that, according to a recent opinion poll, "the number of Americans who would condone torture, at least when used on terrorists in order to save lives, has risen in the past two years to 44%." Another 53% disapproved of torture under all conditions.

Imagine the police bringing in a disheveled young man, first name Mohammed, born in Saudi Arabia (like Osama bin Laden) who is said to belong to a group threatening to blow up the school where your child is learning to read and write. Would you not be willing to do anything to this young Mohammed in order to prevent harm to your child? If we are honest, most of us would answer that question with a "Yes."

What then is wrong with those 53% who oppose torture? Don't they have children? Or do they have children they don't care for? Don't they know at least how precious their children are to most people?

Those 53% see the problem in this story about Mohammed. Told the story about terrorists threatening your child, your first reaction is to say: do anything to protect my child, including torture. But after a moment's thought the problem is obvious: how do we know Mohammed is a terrorist? One possible scenario is that he has confessed (without torture.) He has changed his mind, he does not want children to be hurt, he wants to help to prevent that terrible disaster. In that case no one needs to torture him because he is willing to tell all.

Suppose Mohammed denies the charge of terrorism. He claims not to know any of the other people suspected of plotting against the school. Should we torture him because he is a terrorist? How do we know that? Surely, we are committed to saying this: he is innocent until proven guilty. Unless a court case is brought against him that shows that he is indeed a terrorist, it is illegitimate to even consider torture.

Our legal system is a great human accomplishment. It demands that guilt must be proven, that accusations from third parties are not sufficient to label anybody a criminal or a terrorist . We should be proud of that legal principle of persons being innocent until proven guilty and should do everything to support it. Fortunately, US Courts are beginning to insist that our government accord fair treatment to its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Recently a three judge Court of Appeals sharply criticized the government for holding a Chinese man for six years on no better evidence than that he had been accused of terrorism by the government in three separate documents.

We have not always adhered to these principles. In earlier days women were tortured and killed as witches on the mere say-so of some hysterical child. Black men and women, and some whites, were dragged from jails, without trials, hung, burned and mutilated by angry mobs. People used to be punished for actions they had not committed; rumors were sufficient (together with the victim's black skin). We now try to avoid those kinds of injustices.

We, therefore, may not call anyone a terrorist until a proper court proceeding has proven that. We may not torture anybody simply because someone has called him a terrorist, even if that someone is the US government, the FBI, the CIA, or his best friend. Without a trial in which he is convicted, Mohammed may not be called a terrorist or be treated as one.

The poll cited earlier shows that 44% of our fellow citizens are willing to torture terrorists "in order to save lives." This raises another worrisome question: do we know that torturing people saves lives? Many people point out that inflicting intense pain on someone is not likely to make him terribly truthful or a reliable witness. How reliable is information gained by torture? The answer to that question is not clear at all.

So why are 44% of our fellow citizens prepared to torture persons whose identity as terrorists has not been proven and whose possible torture has not been shown to save lives?

Frightened human beings do not think clearly and effectively. For the last eight years the government and many politicians have maintained a steady drumbeat of fear mongering.
They have resorted to a technique regularly used by governments ( and powerful private groups) to manipulate citizens. At the beginning of the war with Japan, the government created hysteria about a possible Japanese invasion of California, putting Japanese Americans--most of them American citizens whose sons and daughters were serving in the US military--in concentration camps. In the 1950's, at the beginning of the Cold War, paranoid anti-Communists instigated a new hysteria about internal subversion. Many lives were seriously disrupted by illegal and coercive inquisitions into political beliefs or membership which the Constitutions is supposed to protect. Today, our government, having woefully mismanaged the response to 9/11 is trying to distract us by fanning the fear of secret dangers that lurk everywhere--the "terrorists."

They do not serve us well. They do not serve our institutions well. It is not clear that they even enhance our safety. It is high time that we stopped talking as if our life was constantly in danger. It is high time to try to think clearly and calmly about terrorism and about torture.