Counterterrorism, Torture, and the Law

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Cong. Peter Hoekstra calls for an investigation into “what the Obama administration may be doing to endanger the security our nation has enjoyed because of interrogations and other antiterrorism measures implemented since Sept. 12, 2001.” Hoekstra implies, or at least clearly believes, that Obama’s renunciation of torture has made the country less safe. Rest assured, when the next attack occurs (and there will be another attack), Hoekstra and other supporters of torture will claim vindication, even though they won’t be able to point to direct evidence that torture would have averted the attack. It is equally impossible to prove a negative – why something does not occur – as it is to prove that an action not taken in the past would have prevented something in the present.

Similarly, former Vice President Cheney claims that the use of techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and cramped confinement enabled the U.S. government to stop future terrorist attacks, and he has asked the Obama administration to declassify the documents that supposedly prove it. Cheney has previously said that President Obama’s renunciation of torture increases the likelihood that future attacks will be successful.

Of course, Cheney has not asked for the declassification of all information obtained by torture. He presumably doesn’t want the American people to know the countless false positives, the fake leads, the purely bogus information offered up by those being tortured in a vain attempt to halt – or merely postpone – their severe discomfort. (Gene Healy documents a few of these in his recent column.)

Nor can Cheney or Hoekstra prove that the few kernels of useful information obtained under torture could only have been acquired under torture, and not by other techniques, techniques that were consistent with our laws, and that we employed in past conflicts. They can’t prove such claims, because they aren’t true.

In the end, however, this is not a question of whether torture works. Appeals to reason fail when people perceive a danger beyond what reason informs. After all, no reasonable person could logically conclude that terrorism poses an existential threat to the Republic, and yet that false belief continues to shape our conduct. We choose not to consider what has worked in the past because we perceive the past to be irrelevant.

That our actions are driven not by logic but by our fears – visceral, instinctual fears – is understandable. Vengeful actions, while not logical, can be justified in certain circumstances. Would the relatives of those killed in Oklahoma City have been justified in publicly stoning Timothy McVeigh? We could have given a rock – or better yet a piece of rubble from the Alfred P. Murah building – to one family member of each of those killed. The parents of the children killed in the day care center might have been handed particularly large chunks of concrete. Or perhaps the families of the 87 people killed in the Happy Land social club should have been allowed to burn alive Julio Gonzalez, the unemployed Cuban refugee who set the fire? And if we handed a machete to Mariane Pearl – or to Adam Daniel, the son Daniel Pearl never knew – and watched them chop off Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s head, no one would shed a tear. We might even call it justice.

That we do not resort to such tactics is one of the things that separate us from animals.

In the animal kingdom, might makes right. If the lion can catch the antelope, no higher authority can stop it from devouring his prey. No moral code teaches the lion that he should eat grass instead.

A conscience is not the only thing that separates us from the animals. When our moral compass fails us, when we are blinded by rage and a thirst for justice, law brings us back, or merely holds us back, from doing what our basest human instincts tell us is right and proper.

Since 9/11, many people have framed these laws as a mark of our weakness. Our enemies are not bound by any code, so why should we be? Lincoln suspended habeus corpus believing it necessary to save the Union. FDR approved the internment of Japanese-Americans on similar grounds. It doesn’t matter that neither measure was actually instrumental to saving the Republic from destruction; indeed, the evidence shows that they had no such effect. All that matters is that these men acted in good faith.

Thus is the torture debate at the center of our evolving concepts of executive power, with one side saying that the president is not above the law, and the other side saying that a president (and, actually, not just the president, but anyone in the executive branch) is immune from such laws when he or she believes them to be an impediment to his ability to carry out his duties. It isn’t exactly Frost/Nixon, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” but it’s close enough.

It is not as high as some people might think, but still forty percent of Americans believe that torture is appropriate in certain circumstances, even though it is clearly against the law. Most of these same people presumably don’t believe that other laws – murder, rape, incest, and human slavery, for example – can be circumvented by presidential fiat. But terrorism is different, so the thinking goes, and fighting it requires us to discard troublesome laws.

The reality is exactly the opposite. Because a central object of terrorism is to induce advanced societies to come loose from their ideological moorings, we must strive even harder to adhere to them. Because terrorists attempt to trick or goad a government founded on certain principles to depart, if only for a moment, from those same principles, our leaders must resist the urge to do so.

On these terms, we haven’t been doing a very good job. We have been circumventing our fundamental principles for seven years, and many Americans think that we should – nay that we must – continue doing it…indefinitely.

It is a sad and sickening spectacle. If we continue down this path – if we cannot call torture for what it is, if we cannot restore an ironclad respect for the rule of law, if we cannot claw back some semblance of separation of powers, with a Congress willing to oppose White House power grabs instead of simply enabling them – then the terrorists will have won.