Since the War on Terror began four years ago, Americans find themselves embroiled in a new debate regarding the merits of torture. Late last year, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) added an amendment to a defense appropriations bill to strictly define the interrogation techniques the U.S. military can use on captured terrorists. McCain’s amendment gathered enormous bipartisan support because McCain is widely considered the de facto expert on military-interrogation techniques.
I feel compelled to state the obvious: we are in a war against terrorism and to win wars you sometimes have to get your hands dirty. Of course, we would love to take the moral high ground on controversial war tactics, but this moral high ground rarely works to an advantage in war.
Former President Harry Truman made the morally questionable decision to drop the only two atomic bombs ever used in combat. The result was American victory in Japan at the cost of countless Japanese lives.
May I also remind you the lengths to which terrorists will go to defeat America? They behead contractors rebuilding infrastructure, abduct those who believe President Bush is more to blame for terrorism and murder innocent civilians at weddings. These terrorists do not care who they capture or kill. That is the measure of their resolve.
With all of the media coverage surrounding prisoner abuse at Abu-Ghraib and the story about secret prisons in Eastern Europe run by the Central Intelligence Agency, questions arose over the proper treatment of captured terrorists. Obviously, McCain’s amendment was an attempt to find a way to ensure proper treatment of terrorists while giving the U.S. military enough latitude to gather intelligence. I have enormous respect for McCain, but his amendment compromises our intelligence-gathering capabilities for the moral high ground.
The media was all too happy to highlight the fact the McCain amendment forbids the use of interrogation techniques by the military outside those approved of in the new edition of the Army Field Manual. McCain intends for the new field manuals to remain classified information. But classified for how long? It will only be a matter of time before the classified manual hits the Internet because some human rights watchdog uses the Freedom of Information Act or some renegade aide leaks it to the New York Times.
Human-rights advocates who argue that the Geneva Convention shields terrorists against coercive interrogation by the United States are wrong. Part I Article IV of the Geneva Convention awards Prisoner of War status only to those soldiers that march in formation, wear a uniform designating military rank and carry their arms openly. The terrorists we are fighting abroad do not meet those requirements.
McCain’s amendment is also murky pertaining to the ticking-time-bomb scenario. What is America to do if another Sept. 11-scale attack is imminent and we possess a high-profile terrorist in military custody? McCain’s profound explanation as reported by Newsweek, “You do what you have to do, but you take responsibility for it.”
Within McCain’s logic for the ticking-time-bomb scenario is an admission that the most legitimate argument against coercion – the subject will give out bad information for the sake of giving out information – could be wrong. You do what you have to do. McCain knows coercive tactics work, because he broke in the Hanoi Hilton under intense coercion tactics. Reading between the lines, McCain acknowledges coercive interrogation works, that it is only acceptable in dire circumstances and that we should not prosecute the interrogator if he saves the world.
What about using coercion to save an American platoon in Iraq, or a mall full of people in suburban Chicago? Well, the proper conduct for military personnel on those occasions is not clear other than that the president holds the final discretion – thanks to President Bush’s signing statement.
I want to win the War on Terror. I understand the questions of morality at play during warfare but, in the end, victory for America is the ultimate goal.
If subjecting a terrorist to water boarding – making him think he is going to drown – saves the life of an American or prevents a suicide bomb, mission accomplished. If gathering intelligence from terrorists requires coercive tactics, then do it. I will not lose a wink of sleep. Will you?
Stiglich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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