New light on torture

New light on torture

For years, we listened to the Bush administration insist that the United States does not torture.
Now, with the release Monday of a 2004 report by then-CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson, you can decide for yourself:
• Is choking a prisoner repeatedly a form of torture?
• Are threats of physical and sexual abuse against one’s family a form of torture?
• Are mock executions a form of torture?
• Is blowing tobacco smoke in one’s face to induce vomiting a form of torture?
• Is intimidation with a handgun or power drill a form of torture?
CIA interrogators used all these techniques, and possibly others. Much of the 109-page report by the inspector general was blacked out.
The release of the report came on the same day that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor to investigate prisoner abuse at the hands of CIA interrogators who used these techniques, several of which were not authorized by the Justice Department.
The defenders of these practices point to vital information gleaned from detainees. However, a New York Times story noted that those same defenders don’t say what tactics were used on those prisoners or with what degree of success.
All of which poses an important question. Is torture ever justifiable?
That’s a tough question to answer, but we are swayed by the legal opinion of a country that has far more experience with terrorist attacks than the United States — Israel.
The Supreme Court of Israel actually considered the torture question in a 1994 case, Committee Against Torture in Israel v. the Government of Israel and the General Security Services. In that case, the court held that even in a “ticking bomb” scenario, torture or physical coercion is banned without exception. Experience has taught that there are more effective and moral ways of extracting information from detainees that do not reach beyond the bounds of law.
Following that decision, then-Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak wrote, “The war against terrorism also requires the interrogation of terrorists, which must be conducted according to the ordinary rules of interrogation. Physical force must not be used.”
One might expect that a country facing the threat of attack for 60 years might adopt a more, shall we say, convenient position on torture, yet Israel’s very independent high court went another way.
There’s a lesson there.