A Thoughtful Look at “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”

Writing in Commentary, Peter Wehner has written the most sensible look at the waterboarding issue that I have seen.  He points out what I have contended, that waterboarding is tame compared to most other forms of “enhanced interrogation” techniques and even has a nice quote from Sen. Chuck Shumer speaking in complete support of using these techniques in 2004:

“I think there are probably very few people in this [Congressional hearing] room or in America who would say that torture should never, ever be used, particularly if thousands of lives are at stake. Take the hypothetical: if we knew that there was a nuclear bomb hidden in an American city and we believe that some kind of torture, fairly severe maybe, would give us a chance of finding that bomb before it went off, my guess is most Americans and most Senators, maybe all, would do what you have to do. So it’s easy to sit back in the armchair and say that torture can never be used. But when you’re in the fox hole, it’s a very different deal. And I respect, I think we all respect the fact that the President’s in the fox-hole every day. So he can hardly be blamed for asking you, or his White House counsel or the Department of Defense, to figure out when it comes to torture, what the law allows and when the law allows it, and what there is permission to do.” – Senator Charles Shumer

Wehner continues with a hypothetical situation:

Apropos of Schumer’s comments, critics of enhanced interrogation techniques need to wrestle with a set of questions they like to avoid: if you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that would stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer “never” are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer “sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.”

I agree with that last point completely.  The author continues, noting that even if there are downsides to using these techniques, what sometimes matters are the net results.  Wehner also draws some historical parallels worth considering.

I am not one who believes that there is no cost to pursuing enhanced interrogation techniques. In debating policies, especially those that reach the president, there are costs and benefits to consider. So it’s certainly possible that our employment of enhanced interrogation techniques was used as a recruitment tool for militant jihadists; if so, that needs to be weighed against the plots you break up and the innocent lives you save. Also, many members of the military oppose waterboarding because they feel it stains the reputation of America and endangers our own servicemen and women (though it’s hard to accept the argument that al Qaeda would be less sadistic if we had not used coercive interrogation techniques; after all, they were beheading innocent people even before it was known the U.S. used water-boarding). These are not silly objections. Beyond that, most of us instinctively pull back from using harsh interrogation techniques and certainly torture. Given the double-obligation of morality and law, we should begin with the presumption that waterboarding shouldn’t be utilized and then set a very high bar for anyone who would argue that it might be acceptable in very limited instances.

But that is, in fact, what seems to have occurred. And so I do not accept for a moment that the last eight years constitute a “dark chapter” in our history. Quite the opposite. Michael Gerson points out that our history is replete with actions – the firebombing of Dresden, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and (I would add) Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in World War II – which certainly raise more morally problematic issues than what the Bush Administration pursued.

One thing that the author wrote in his last paragraph gets to the heart of the matter for me and I will let it stand by itself.  Read Wehner’s article here.

There are of course serious-minded critics of enhanced interrogation techniques. But to pretend, as some critics do, that the morality of this issue is self-evident and that waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques are obviously unacceptable and something for which our nation should be ashamed is, in my judgment, not only wrong but irresponsible. When a nation is engaged in war, you hope to find in government sober people who are able to weigh competing moral goods and who take seriously their obligation to protect our nation. They may not get everything right at the time – hardly anyone does in the heat of the moment – but they should not have to face a lynch mob years after the fact (especially those in the lynch mob who blessed the activities at the time they were being used).

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One response to “A Thoughtful Look at “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”

  1. Excellent commentary. Well thought out and gives one pause no matter what side of this issue you come down on.

    I am of the opinion most of us are reasonable people, regardless of our political or philosophical differences. So I have considered this issue along this thought:

    Suppose MY (or your)child was caught up in a terrorist group and captured by authorities. It is pretty much indisputably considered he or she has knowledge of an impending, horrendous attack that would claim the lives of thousands if not millions of innocent citizens.

    My or your own child is resisting interrogation while taunting the interrogator with the assurance this attack is coming off and will be spectacular.

    If they come to me (you) and describe the techniques the US used and ASKED your permission to use these techniques on your child to extract this information, would you say yes?

    Personally, I would say “Yes”. I would seek assurances my child would not be injured or his life endangered. I would plead with them to please not inflict any harm or hurt beyond that necessary to extract the information needed to save many lives.

    But if my own child put himself in that position, and then magnified the difficulty with his intransigence, then I would agree to the use of any of the “Harsh Interrogation Techniques” that it has been described we used on these people.

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