Why We Shouldn't Torture Suspected Terrorists

A torture survivor says we can't practice the terrorism that is torture in order to fight terrorism.

BY: Interview with Dr. Orlando Tizon

 
Dr. Orlando Tizon, himself a torture survivor, is the Assistant Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International.

What is your response to the information that authorities are probably using torture on 9/11 suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

We oppose his torture, just as we would oppose the torture of an American soldier or official who fell into the hands of enemies of the United States. Under no circumstance whatever should torture be allowed. The United Nations Convention against Torture (read it), which was adopted in 1986 and signed by the U.S. and more than a hundred nations, states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

We realize these are difficult times, but even if the man was responsible for the acts of which he is accused, it is not a justification for torture. Mohammed should be brought to trial in accordance with international law. The Convention against Torture also expressly prohibits sending a person to another country for torture and interrogation ("rendition").

How would you respond to those who say it would be better for this one man to suffer physical pain than for thousands of people to be killed by future terrorist attacks he might be involved in?

He still has basic human rights. If you make exceptions in even a few cases, the exceptions tend to spread. When do you stop? Mr. Marcos of the Philippines used the excuse of popular unrest to declare martial law in 1972 and institutionalize the practice of torture there causing the torture, maiming, and execution of thousands of Filipinos.

If torture is not a legitimate option, how do we get the information? Suppose Mohammed knows a small bomb will be planted somewhere in California in two months. Some say we need to get that information from him no matter what it takes.

Torture is not the answer to this problem. I myself was tortured [in the Philippines], in part so that my torturers could get information. And it really didn't work. I just made up stories. Authorities often admit that the information gained via torture is unreliable.

Torture is being practiced in 150 countries, including countries who signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which also prevents extradition to countries where torture is used. Yet torture is being subcontracted out from ostensibly anti-torture countries to ones where it happens.

Everyone's afraid after 9/11. People think rules should be bent--that even things like United Nations rulings are perhaps not as applicable now that terrorism is such a threat. How would you answer this?

These are very difficult, troubling times. But we can't turn our backs on international law and on human rights. Torture is terrorism, and we can't practice torture to fight terrorism. We may win one battle, but we won't win the war.

Because it would mean adopting the same tactics as terrorists?

Yes. For instance, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who became bin Ladin's deputy and a leading ideologue of al-Qaeda, was jailed in an Egyptian prison for three years and beaten frequently. The traumatic experiences in prison transformed him from a relative moderate in the Islamist underground into a violent extremist. Islamists tell their followers that the practice of torture means that a regime has lost its legitimacy and deserves to be destroyed.

So in the end, we may gain small concessions through torture, but we won't win the war on terrorism. We lose our credibility and moral leadership before the international community. We also erode the foundations of international law, human rights, and democracy.

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