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Crosstalk: Is torture a necessary tool of war?

When I was a little boy in grade school the teacher — I don’t remember the subject — gave as an example of horrible cruelty the little-boy practice of pulling the wings off a fly.

I had never thought to do so, and I puzzled over the suggestion that it was somehow more cruel than slapping one flat with a fly swatter. So I swooped one up in my hand (a skill I often practiced in school and church), and pulled its wings off.

I didn’t feel particularly cruel — the fly simply crawled around on my desk, doing what flies do. It could have lived there on my desk for days, I suspect, but I smashed it with my math book.

The common practice of catching flies on sticky paper seemed more cruel, to me, than pulling off their wings: You could hear buzzing in futility for hours on end, a sad way for any creature to die.

I decided the teacher was wrong in her definition of cruelty.

None of which has anything to do with waterboarding terrorism suspects.

Or does it?

The idea that torture is okay is, it seems to me, based on two points: The first is the overwhelming need to gather life-saving information from a recalcitrant subject as fast as possible.

The goal is not to be cruel, but to save lives: Knowledge is life, when you are fighting a war.

Faced with the very real threat that additional attacks are planned, and hopeful that the subject at hand holds the information needed to thwart that attack, the subject is drowned, shocked, beaten, deprived of sleep, chained in a painful position, drilled into, or stretched out on the rack.

“Hold it,” say the interrogators. “We didn’t use the rack.”

Sorry, that was in medieval times. I got my timeline confused. Did they ram bamboo splinters under their fingernails and light them, or was a different war as well?

The second point used to make torture acceptable is the “fly” aspect.

It’s okay to kill a fly. They get in our food, fly up our noses, spread illness. Starve them on fly tape, slap them dead with a rolled-up newspaper. No one is going to cry foul.

Terrorists are a lot like flies — we don’t really want to preserve their life or dignity, when they are attacking us or going around beheading people.

We are happy to hear that they are dead, killed in an air strike or taken out by a special operations team.

We can imagine, in our anger, holding their face under water until they drown.

The problem with torture is that, unlike pulling the wings off a fly and letting it walk around on your school desk, torture compromises our humanity and is a first step to atrocity. It is outlawed by the Geneva Conventions and most nations for that very reason.

Would more have died if suspects had not been tortured? There are claims and counter claims, I’m not convinced either way.

But America is a country worth dying for –— we defined our freedoms long ago, and have fought for them.

But freedom is a two-edged sword, and sometimes you have to do the right thing, even when the wrong thing seems like the best, or only, course.

Is it more inhumane to be waterboarded or blown up in a drone strike? In yet another example of American hypocrisy, the Left howls about torture when federal agents are trying to get information out of a suspected terrorist and then stays remarkably silent about President Barack Obama’s policy of targeted drone assassinations.

Between 2004 and 2014, drones have killed an estimated 2,400 to 3,888 individuals in Pakistan alone, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London.

An estimated 345 to 553 individuals in Yemen were killed in drone strikes over the same period. On some occasions, drones have killed women and children in the target area.

How is assassinating a terrorist or anyone unlucky enough to be nearby morally better than waterboarding a confessed terrorist at Guatanamo Bay? At least a terrorist subjected to waterboarding can survive the ordeal.

Of course, it doesn’t help the uncomfortable debate over the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation” when Democrats compile information for a Senate Intelligence Committee report reflecting that waterboarding doesn’t work — without actually talking to CIA agents.

George Tenet, former director of the CIA, said waterboarding and other interrogations methods yielded more information about terrorist activities than all other data collected from “the FBI, CIA and the National Security Agency put together.”

Michael Hayden, former CIA director, and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, stated that, as late as 2006, “fully half of the government’s knowledge about the structure and activities of Al Qaeda came from those interrogations.”

In short, Americans are walking around alive and well in this country today because these processes yielded valuable information about terrorist plans.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the waterboarded mastermind of 9/11, is said to have revealed copy-cat operations that were to have followed the attacks that took nearly 3,000 American lives.

It is easy to be an armchair quarterback about what should be done for the sake of national security from the safety and security of our living rooms.

We are, after all, people will say, a nation of stronger moral fiber than one that condones torture.

Let’s keep war antiseptic shall we? Perhaps that is why there is little public outcry over the current practice of killing suspected insurgents with drone strikes.

Those deaths occur thousands of miles away and we often don’t even know the names of the obliterated, or what they were suspected of.

So much easier than having enemy combatants lodged at Gitmo, where we have to decide how and when they should be released.

Who really cares that suspects who are blown up never have the opportunity to divulge information that may stop your family and mine from being targeted.

I believe waterboarding and other forms of enhanced interrogation are permissible when there is a ticking time bomb to diffuse, or when the lives of Americans are at stake.

I will never forget 9/11.


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