How Much for a Schlub?

Over at The Corner, Rich Lowry put up a post on detainee interrogations that I responded to. Follow-up posts are available here and here.

Jay Nordlinger steps in to offer the view that, with terrorists, the difference between a “schlub” and a “monster” isn’t much. A pathetic radical can cause a lot of damage with just a little bit of luck.

This may be true, but there is a valuable ends-means calculation that must be considered (also addressed in Julian Sanchez’s post here).

How many times must we use coercive interrogation and get nothing, suffering the inevitable backlash in public opinion and enemy recruiting, for each intelligence success? If you are willing to torture a dozen/hundred/thousand men for each schlub, you will motivate a sufficient number of monsters to make a small tactical victory a pyrrhic one at best, and a strategic debacle at worst.

The big picture trends against torture, or any use of force that crosses the line between mutual combat and violating human rights, or the use of indiscriminate force. The attack on September 11, 2001 crossed that line, and we justifiably responded with military action. The use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT’s) crossed that line, and the enemy used it as propaganda fodder.

The British faced a parallel situation in Northern Ireland in 1971. After employing mass arrests that stoked the fires behind the IRA, the Brits employed “special interrogation techniques.” Former FBI Special Agent and successful terrorist group infiltrator Mike German covers this in his book, Thinking Like a Terrorist (citing Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA):

Among the methods used on the internees were the “five techniques”: placing a hood over the head; forcing the internee to stand spreadeagled against a wall for long periods; denying regular sleep patterns; providing irregular and limited food and water; and subjecting people to white noise in the form of a constant humming sound.

Sound familiar? Violence in Northern Ireland increased as a result of these practices. The Brits crossed the line again on Bloody Sunday when they fired into a crowd of peaceful protestors (possibly a response to IRA gunfire at British paratroopers). The tide shifted in favor of the IRA until they broke the unwritten rules of the game on Bloody Friday, detonating twenty-two bombs in Belfast that killed nine people. Tactically masterful, but a political disaster.

The Bush administration changed tactics in its second term in office, discarding EIT’s and moving away from physical coercion of detainees. This was a sensible decision, and there is no reason for the Obama administration to change course.