When our elected officials - and the high-end advisors and cabinet chiefs who were not elected - talk about it, they call it "enhanced interrogation techniques." If they talk about it at all, that is. In the media, they call it "brutal." Call it what you will, what it is is inflicting physical and psychological discomfort to break down a prisoner's will to resist questioning.
Some might call it expedient. Others might call it unreliable.
There's one thing I've learned: you can't fully trust information discovered under torture. The recipient of such treatment, if he is subjected to it too long, will say and do anything to make the torture stop. That information may be right, and it might be bogus. He will say anything. Anything. This was brought home to me, most surprisingly, in an episode of Star Trek TNG. Captured and intensively interrogated by hostile Cardassians, Captain Picard begins to break down. It being Star Trek and he being the head Good Guy, Picard is of course rescued...but later, discussing the matter with the ship's counselor, he admits that though he knew there were just four lights in the ceiling, the Cardassian's treatment was getting to him. He could see, as the Cardassian insisted, that there might be five. His world had begun to crumble, his grasp on his own will was slipping away.
How much will did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have left after 183 trips to the waterboarding room? The man spent as much time underwater as a Woods Hole submersible, maybe wondering if this time, the water wouldn't stop.
Held down, soaked, gasping for breath, exhausted. What would you say to make it stop? Are there four lights, or five? Where is Osama bin Laden? What would you say?
I think I might tell my questioners that the sky was hot pink with racing stripes, if I thought it would hold the bucket back for a few more minutes. But that's me talking here and now, in a comfortable chair and no hostile hands on my neck.
We say that as Americans, we respect the human rights of all people equally. Americans don't torture. Prisoners have rights, prisoners though they be. Even prisoners of war, under American law, are afforded certain guarantees of treatment. This tends to slow down the process of extracting information from especially well informed prisoners, and that makes everyone cranky. But fortunately for us, we have international friends who, even if they don't say that they do torture, won't mind lending us a room where we can conduct some enhanced interrogations of our own.
Finding bin Laden was the work of years. Mohammed couldn't provide all the information, and of course once he was captured his information became increasingly out of date. So subsequent prisoners provide more information - some of which, if Mohammed was lucky, corroborated his story.
I land in two places on the whole torture issue. I hate it as an American. I really believe it is completely beneath us as a nation to tolerate it, even for a moment. Like the death penalty, it is a debasement of our nation's values, a throwback to a less-civilized time.
And then I see in my mind, the towers falling. Planes plunging into places where they shouldn't go. Calling home to be certain my mother wasn't in the Pentagon, getting another call from a friend who said he looked up as he was refueling his car, thinking to himself, "that's not a typical flight path around here." I see in my mind the images of people captured by al Qaeda forces, accused of assorted bogus crimes, and having their heads sawn off as they struggle for one more breath.
But that's not torture. That's murder. The only common element here is that the victim just wants to live. At least under the American program, you have that option. You still have the chance to live, to redeem yourself, to give up your pride and your commitment to an oppressive regime, to turn your life around. In fact, under the American program, you're pretty sure that you actually will live. Under al Qaeda, no such guarantees.
I'm about ready to advocate for even harsher treatment of a few al Qaeda operatives. I lean farther away from the information gathering aspects of torture, farther toward the punishment aspects. I won't write them down here. It poisons my mind enough just to think of them, no point in adding that to yours, too.
I'm about ready. I'm not entirely ready. I'm not willing to stop being an American. I'm not ready to give up that universal respect for everyone, those underlying Christian ideals that are the ethical basis of so much of America's foundation. But al Qaeda is pushing me farther and farther.
It galls me, more than anything, to know that their treatment of us would make me more like them.