Glenn Reynolds has a large compendium of links on the Democratic attempts to nail AG nominee Alberto Gonzales on the issue of torture. Gonzales authored the memo that stated that al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners were not covered under the Geneva Convention.
I agree with Reynolds, the Democrats are hanging themselves here. Gonzales is correct: a force that does not follow the Conventions has abrogated their rights to be treated under the Convention’s rules. The whole point of having a body of law like the Geneva Convention is that it provides an incentive to follow some basic rules of warfare — giving those protections to those who do not deserve them only encourages others to break those rules. Al-Qaeda does not wear unforms, does not discriminate between military and non-combatants, and does not treat their prisoners humanely.
Politically, the Democrats are fools if they think this issue will do anything but cement their image as being the party of weakness on national security. I’m guessing a majority of Americans have no moral problems with using harsh interrogation techniques against someone like Khalid Sheik Mohammad or Osama bin Laden. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. The outright prohibition against torture fails on utilitarian grounds – if we’d arrested Mohammad Atta before September 11, 2001 and could use torture to prevent the deaths of thousands, I don’t think that the rights of someone who has abrogated the most basic standards of civilized warfare deserves to be treated in the same way as someone who does. That isn’t a winning argument for the Democrats, and rightly so.
The problem is that torture isn’t necessarily an effective technique. As Porphyrogenitus notes:
Frankly, I’m against torture. But I’m not against harsh interrogation techniques, intimidation and the like. What’s the degree? In some ways it’s a matter of degree. It’s a difference in the level of physicality. On the practical side, I’m not sure it’s effective in getting accurate information – getting people to say what they know rather than just tell you what you want to hear. I’m certainly not sure it’s better than other methods of getting them to talk, psychological pressure and tricks and the like. Sure, you can make anyone talk – almost anyone – and say what you want them to say. But that’s not the same as getting them to tell you the truth.
However, techniques like sleep depravation, sensory depravation, and psychological torture can work and provide life-saving information. We have to realize that in a moral question like this, demanding absolute moral purity is not only impossible, but foolish. Salus populi suprema lex — the ultimate goal of law is the safety of the people. Granted, there needs to be some form of due process to ensure that torture and intimidation isn’t used indesciminately — Alan Dershowitz’s “torture warrant” concept seems a reasonable way to me to reconcile due process with the need to save lives as best we can. Those who demand an absolute ban on torture have to reconcile that with the idea that such a stance could very well cost the lives of thousands of people some day. If we’re talking about a nuclear weapon in New York city, it could be millions of lives. Once that question no longer becomes academic, I would rather stand on the more slippery moral ground of allowing torture than try and reconcile the lives of millions with apply the rules of civilized warfare to those who have categorically rejected them.