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?
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.
Torture is a moral crime, only justified in extreme circumstances by the even more abominable sin of terrorism. I love America precisely because it champions freedom, promotes justice, and upholds human rights. I love this country because it is soundly based on the highest principles of morality. But there is a big difference between moral righteousness and patronizing self-righteousness. There is a significant difference between wanting to do the "right thing" when no one is at risk, and hiding behind the patina of morality to avoid an ugly act when avoiding it could mean many innocents will be permanently hurt. Is it proper for patronizing moralists to wrap themselves in a warm and cozy ethical blanket, protesting that they would never consider torturing a terrorist, while Americans die in attacks that could have been prevented had torture been used to extract information? Can one really be moral when one's morality directly leads to someone else's death? Is there a point in being a free country of dead people? Can moral uprightness be preserved among those who have assumed the horizontal posture of death?
No, only a complete pacifist would say that torture is always wrong and has no place in a liberal democracy. If you're going to say that the ugly nature of torture renders it eternally illegitimate, then why not say the same thing about the horrors of war?
The vast majority of people believe that while war is an evil, it is--sadly--sometimes a necessary evil. If there's a Hitler who wants to kill millions, then you have no choice but to fight him. And if there is a Khalid Sheikh Muhammad who wants to kill your children, then you have to force him to divulge where the bomb is hidden.
Just as the cruelties of war are sometimes necessary, the same is true of the brutalities of torture. Who can fail to see the absurdity of those civil libertarians opposing torture of mass-murderers and yet supporting going to war against and killing these same terrorists in Afghanistan? In the latter instance, they would accept that a terrorist is a dedicated murderer and if one has the opportunity to eliminate him, one dare not squander that opportunity. So where is the logic? It's OK for a sharpshooter to kill a guy like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad if he's pointing a gun at someone's head. But G-d forbid that you stick a blade under his nails to cause him enough pain to extract information that will prevent the deaths of thousands--even though his wounds will heal in a matter of days. You can blow off his legs with a mortar shell in a war situation, but you can't beat his legs with a stick in order to get him to talk? This is irrational and inconsistent thinking.