The Fatal Naivete of Ruling Out Torture

The justification for torture of terrorists now is the scale of the horror it could avert.

Mention anything about torture, and hideous images of, say, the Spanish Inquisition are immediately conjured up. We picture innocent men and women whose only crime was not to embrace the correct faith having their feet forced into boots with razor sharp blades, being stretched on the rack until their joints were dislocated, or being blinded with hot irons.

With images like these, it's no wonder that the question of whether we should be torturing the terrorist mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, to elicit information arouses such powerful opposition. The battle cry immediately goes out: We Americans are not barbarians. We dare not stoop to the savage practices of terrorists. It is because we are different from them that our culture is worth fighting for, and theirs worth fighting against.

And all this is true.

But this sentiment of trumpeting our humanity and squeaky-clean morality as the foundation for our unwillingness to torture genocidal terrorists is counterbalanced by the horrific images of September 11. Yes, torture is gruesome, torture is hideous, torture is abhorrent. But so are scenes of the innocent workers at the World Trade Center plunging 100 stories to the ground rather than be incinerated by 2000-degree heat. Is the fact of 350 crushed, mangled, and murdered firemen any less grotesque than the prospect of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad being tortured--bruised and bloodied--so that we never have to witness an abomination like September 11 again?

In the new world of mass terrorism, it is fatal naivete not to make the necessary tough choices. The justification for torture of terrorists now is the scale of the horror it could avert.


To be sure, torture is a very extreme step to be taken by a democracy, and one that must be regulated with the closest possible scrutiny by the judiciary. The military dare not torture any prisoner with impunity. Rather, in the same way that a home cannot be searched by the police without a warrant, torture should require similar formal permissions that are meted out on a case-by-case basis.

And of course, not all forms of torture should be allowed. I am irrevocably opposed to any form of torture which leaves permanent harm, such as the mangling of a limb, breaking of teeth, or a paralyzing injury. But then again, less harsh, indirect forms of torture such as sleep deprivation will probably have little impact against hardened mass-murderers like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. There will be times when much more forceful pressure, such as direct beatings, will be required. And I support the use of such pressure if a terrorist has knowledge of impending attacks and refuses to cooperate when such cooperation will save innocent lives. I would rather see Khalid Sheikh Mohammad bloodied and bruised, unable to walk for a few days because he has been kicked mercilessly by a CIA interrogator, than hear the blood-curdling wail of hundreds of mothers and fathers burying their children, and see the empty stare of orphan kids searching for a parent who has been taken from them by monsters who could have been stopped-if only we hadn't been afraid to injure their colleagues.

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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