Beliefnet
"The United States does not torture," President Bush said when he announced the transfer of 14 top terror suspects to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay on Sept. 6. Yes it does, says author and legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who calls for a public debate on the moral and pragmatic dimensions of this "reality."


You’ve said that although torture is never acceptable, it’s nevertheless a reality of post-9/11 American policy.

Yes. I am categorically opposed to the use of torture. That’s my moral position. My empirical observation as an expert in these matters is that torture is going on, that every democracy has used and will use torture.

The analogy is to an airplane flying toward the Empire State Building with 300 innocent people in it, because it’s been hijacked by terrorists. What a terrible decision somebody might have to make, to shoot down that airplane over the Atlantic Ocean and kill 300 innocent people.

Would we ever want to justify killing 300 people on an airplane? Of course not. But if the choice is between killing 300 and killing 3,000, the decision is going to be made to kill the 300. That’s the reality of life in the post-9/11 world.

If we ever capture a ticking-bomb terrorist who could prevent the blowing up of an atomic bomb in New York City,  every democratic leader will use torture. That’s my empirical observation, as distinguished from my moral observation.

And so, if torture is a reality--as it is today--there must be accountability. We must know who authorized it. We must know the circumstances under which it was authorized.

How would we do that?

The President must in each instance sign an authorization to use torture, explain why, and explain what torture is going to be allowed and what torture is not. The warrant would require the President to say, “We have Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in our possession. He can tell us about the next 9/11, which is being planned immediately and, therefore, I’m approving the use of water-boarding." Or, "I’m approving the use of a sterilized needle underneath his nails. This is an extraordinary event requiring that national security override the usual rules of law, and I am taking responsibility for authorizing it. If I’m wrong, vote me out of office, because I’m taking responsibility.”

Just like the President would have to take responsibility for shooting down an airplane. We wouldn’t want some low-level Air Force sergeant to make that decision. And if we had this procedure in place, we could never have an Abu Ghraib, which is the result of having no accountability. 

Your critics, including Dr. Steven Miles, say that on the pragmatic level, you’re wrong: Torture does not work.

That is a stupid argument. Ask the people who submitted to torture during many instances of horrible attacks by Stalinism or by Nazism. 

The question is, is it worth it? Is it worth the deaths or the injuries? That’s a legitimate moral debate. But I pay no attention to anybody who says that it never works, because that simply blinks at reality.

The reality is, A) it works sometimes and, B) more important, all democracies believe it works and they’re going to continue to use it. So, should we have it done under the radar screen, hidden from view, or should we have it done with accountability?

If it’s done openly, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll be able to abolish it. Right now, we have some really naïve people saying it never works; therefore, why are you even bothering to have this debate? Others are saying it works all the time.

I think that it works infrequently enough, and it hurts frequently enough, so that my personal position would be to vote against its use. But, as long as it’s being used, I want accountability.

You’ve written that our government tortures “promiscuously” and lies about it. Is that deliberate? 

Of course. Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. And we have to lie because, today, nobody is prepared to acknowledge that we’re doing something which is so inexcusable. What I would prefer to do is see public acknowledgement, and then we can have a great debate about whether or not this should lead us in one direction or another.

Secret torture is the worst of all possible worlds, and that’s the world we live in today, because people like Dr. Miles and human-rights extremists believe that by wishing it will go away, it will. That’s not the way you abolish phenomena like the death penalty or torture in a democratic society.

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