The recent re-emergence of the debate over coercion, harsh interrogation, or torture (whatever term you prefer) of terrorist detainees is a reminder of just how morally ambiguous this matter is. Despite attempts by both sides to present it as a clear-cut, black and white choice, it's far more complicated than that. Sometimes it's quite easy to draw a distinct line between good and evil. This is not one of those times.
It's one of those issues where I can easily understand why one can quite logically come down either for, against, or somewhere in the middle. Usually I regard those who place themselves in the mushy middle as vacillating, lazy, and even cowardly. However, in this instance I find the middle ground to be a reasonable and defensible position to take.
One thing that I don't think has been emphasized enough in the recent rehashing of the torture argument is that most of the policy decisions and actions that are currently being debated took place in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It's easy to sit back now, more than seven-and-a-half years later, and say that there really wasn't of a threat and that the Bush administration overreacted and overreached the bounds of their authority. But if you can remember the atmosphere at the time, you know that these decisions were made when further attacks not only seemed imminent, but inevitable.
So when we're arguing about whether the Bush Administration interrogation techniques (reviewed and approved by Congress) were right, legal, moral, and effective, we should keep the memory of 9/11 fresh in our minds. We should weigh the waterboarding on one hand with the horrific images (and sounds) of people choosing to plunge to their death rather than be burned alive in the WTC buildings. When I consider it that way, I come down on the side of saying that whatever moral qualms I may have about it, waterboarding the high value detainees was justified at the time.
Did the information they provided help disrupt Al Qaeda networks and lead to the capture or death of other Al Qaeda operatives? Almost undoubtedly. Did it prevent another terrorist attack in the United States? Possibly. This is difficult to prove, but it is reasonable to say that it might have. And again going to back to 2002, knowing that enhanced interrogation techniques might prevent an attack would be enough for me to support their use.
Another thing about the current debate that I find perplexing is the absolute conviction in which some who oppose torture claim that it "never works" and that all you get is bad information. While there are a lot of different views and disagreement about how effective torture really is, to say that it never works is to ignore history.
You say torture never works? Tell that to the American airmen captured in North Vietnam. Granted they were subject to levels and intensity of torture that the US would never consider--and in fact probably faced worst than most Al Qaeda detainees have just in their training--but at some point during their interrogation sessions many did "break" and divulged some information they didn't want to. At first, they felt shame and dishonor at having violated the code of military conduct. Then, they realized that almost everyone has their limits and there is only so much pain that a person can endure before they break. So they resolved to not "stay broken," to hold out as long as they could, provide as little real information as possible, not be used for propaganda and make the North Vietnamese "rebreak" them each time.
Return With Honor--Transcript:
DENTON: I put out the word Roll back, bounce back. That was the first time that was initiated. It was very important to last us the rest of the time. You could be tortured to give something, but then you don't just lie back and continue to give them things as they just gradually exploit you. You stop and don't give them anything, you make them torture you again and again and give them as little as you can the next time. In other words, they never advance their indoctrination of you to the object they wanted was you become a slave without torture to do anything they want to help their cause.
Now you can argue about how effective the North Vietnamese approach really was. But if the interrogation objective is to get a captive to provide information that they otherwise would not, it's difficult to say that their torture didn't "work." This doesn't mean that torture always works or that it's the best way to get information or that it's right to use even the most moderate forms of it. However, the argument that it "never works" is not a serious one.
Mark Bowden's 2003 piece in The Atlantic called The Dark Art of Interrogation still remains one of the best references on the subject. Since the original publication of that article, I've heard Bowden interviewed about interrogation, coercion, and torture a number of times. As best I can tell, his position is that the United States should officially ban torture and sign on to international agreements against its use. But if individual interrogators believe they face a situation where severe coercion or torture (again, however you want to label it) is absolutely necessary to get information that will save lives, they should be willing to break the law to obtain it. Then, if they were charged for their actions they would have to defend themselves by explaining their motives and hope they would judged accordingly. Morally ambiguous enough for you?
In this particular debate, such a compromised solution might be the best that we can hope to come up with.
[ More from Debra Saunders and the WSJ editorial board. ]