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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2001 /9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Michael Long

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Consumer Reports

The Moral Case For Torture

Dirty hands don't always mean dirty souls. -- CONSIDER this thought experiment. Someone has planted a bomb somewhere in your city. Could be anywhere-shopping mall, grocery store, sports bar, nursery school. You are the chief of police, and you have the perpetrator in custody. His latest bomb is set to go off tomorrow, and he has blown up bombs in your town before. He won't tell you where the bomb is. He won't be bribed, threatened or enticed into talking. But he knows. And the clock is ticking.

What do you do? Your answer is academic, but for a few officials in the federal government, this scene is being played out for real, even as you read these words.

Several Al-Qaida associates are now in American custody. One in particular, Zacarias Moussaoui, attended flight school and boasted to other students that all he wanted to do was to learn how to steer a commercial jet, not how to take off or land one. Mr. Moussaoui seems to have missed his plane on 9/11. He is now in our hands, and is, shall we say, reticent to tell us what he knows. What do we do?

A few facts are virtually certain: 1) Mr. Moussaoui was part of the 9/11 hijack scheme; 2) Mr. Moussaoui was and is an active participant in the largest single act of terror and mass murder in the history of the U.S.; 3) Mr. Moussaoui has in his head information that would be useful in tracking down those planning the deaths of more innocents.

The word floating around Washington these days is "torture," as in, well, use your imagination. (I often accuse the Left of hiding behind "weasel words" to cover up what they really mean, so I will not suddenly acquire some sanitized PR term for "torture.") Make no mistake, we are talking about inflicting pain on an individual in order to get him to tell us information-pain not as an instrument of punishment or retribution, but pain as a tool to elicit information that will save lives; pain as the vehicle to force a choice: talk, or suffer more. The question is, should we do such a thing?

September 11 has given many a new sense of moral clarity; in particular, of the relationship between justice and force; of the sanctity of innocent life; and lately of the dubious nobility of preserving every civil right for those hell-bent on destroying them for the rest of us. The national morality is no longer defined as a bottomless well of gentility; many now appreciate that such is the road to anarchy. Therefore, in limited and particular circumstances, torture must be an acceptable option. Never to be used as an instrument of punishment or payback, but only as a way of securing information that can save lives in time-essential circumstances when the tactics of war are being prosecuted on individuals at peace.

Hardly comfortable with torture? Me neither. Let's keep it that way. But the argument for torture rests on the priority of innocent life itself over the rights of the guilty. Those who declare their hostility toward innocent human life forfeit their right to have their human rights-their membership in civilization-respected, to the extent that maintaining those rights will cost others their very lives.

By torturing Mr. Moussaoui for the truth, we would be treating a torturer with torture itself, but only in pursuit of information to save lives he himself holds at stake. It's a slippery moral slope, but never has America been on firmer moral ground than in the days after 9/11.

Of course, it may not come to this, though the distinction will be merely semantic. The Justice Department may extradite Al-Qaida terrorists to nations where the rules of interrogation are "not so clear." The President may also invoke his privilege to establish a special military commission to accommodate the threat. (Byron York notes in National Review Online that President Roosevelt did just that in World War II with German terrorists.)

Or maybe we will take our chances with the terrorist cells among us-that is, maybe the government will force us to take our chances-in the name of preserving some nebulous "purity." I prefer that we do what's necessary to get the truth out of the Al-Qaida agents now sitting in our jails. I would rather accept G-d's judgment for torturing one man-and perhaps (though unlikely) the wrong man-than risk thousands more lives because someone can't tell the difference between dirtying his hands and dirtying his soul.

JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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09/28/01: Calling Bono: A plea to the pop culture elite to speak out
09/20/01: Encouragement from the Heartland, by mail
09/13/01: Bleeding time
09/07/01: The trailer-park taste of the public radio catalog
09/04/01: BRAVE NEW FREUD: Internet-based psychiatry may mean relief for those who have shunned treatment
08/17/01: First Amendment: Chickens home to roost
07/27/01: Dispatch From The Front: The Gun Control War
07/20/01: Summer song
07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2001, Michael Long