Torture: can we handle the truth?

Weir thinking about it 

In the movie, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson, played the role of a marine colonel and commanding officer of a base in Guantanamo, Cuba. While being questioned on the stand about tactics used by his men, the colonel was sternly prodded to tell the truth. His response was, 'You can't handle the truth.' I thought about that as I watched the Senate Judiciary Committee question attorney general nominee, Alberto Gonzales, regarding his views on the treatment of prisoners suspected of terrorism. I wondered how we, as Americans, can protect ourselves from enemies who are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to take a lot of us with them.

It is often said that we must not become tyrannical concerning the methods we use to keep us safe. For example, we shouldn't use force to extract confessions from known terrorists, even though they may have information that could deter another disaster in our country. However, the capture of any terrorist leader is more than a symbolic apprehension; it is an opportunity to extract data that may save thousands of American lives.

Winning a war against people who are willing to die for their cause is not going to be an exercise in diplomacy, nor is it for the squeamish. Indeed, if they had the wherewithal to blanket our country with neutron bombs today, we'd already have the smell of decomposing flesh in our nostrils, if were lucky (?) enough to survive.

So, what would the average American be willing to do to prevent another tragedy? Suppose you knew for a fact that your family was in imminent danger of being murdered in a plot masterminded by bin Laden or some other homicidal psycho? Suppose, further, that you knew a confession from him would save the lives of your family. Would you be willing to have the authorities use torture to obtain it? If your answer is no, then you evidently think it's more noble to allow your family to suffer and die than it is to force a confession and save them. As far as I'm concerned that's not nobility, it's stupidity. Worse, it's a flawed philosophy that jeopardizes our attempts to withstand the threat to our survival.

Yes, we are a country of laws, but no law or system of laws is perfect. The mass murder of 9/11 taught us that our immigration policies and inadequate security at our borders and airports resulted in a massive loss of lives. Without a doubt, the relatives of the more than 3000 victims wish we had been tougher and less politically correct when it came to security concerns. We can't do anything for those who have perished on 9/11, but we can do whatever it takes to prevent any further incendiary consequences.

Some would opine that the torture of one man is not worth saving the lives of thousands. That may get a round of applause at an ACLU meeting or a Hollywood cocktail party, but in the real world it's an asinine comment. It should be patently obvious to any sensible person that a thousand innocent lives are infinitely more valuable than the life of one homicidal madman. Yet, we are continually inundated with well meaning phrases and polite niceties that have no relevance to the war against terrorism.

The reality is that people get accustomed to using gentle sounding words and pithy expressions that describe their sensitivity, but when it becomes personal, they are loath to risk everything to defend a dubious principle. Only when it's happening to the other guy's family in that city a thousand miles away do they feel enough detachment to speak magnanimously about the appropriate reaction to the slaughter. In other words, it's easy to be generous with your sympathy toward the arsonist when the other guy's house is on fire.

Picture this: There's a guy in police custody who knows the location of a bomb that's set to explode in an elementary school building that holds 500 children. Threats and intimidation have failed to make him reveal the address of the school and the location of the device. You suspect that torture would loosen his tongue and save all those innocent lives. What would you do? C'mon, the clock is ticking. Make a decision. Five hundred helpless children against the life of some murderous creature who corrupts the atmosphere of life with every breath he takes. Should you think lofty thoughts about the slippery slope toward totalitarianism, should you quote the Constitution, chapter and verse, should you courteously recite his Miranda warnings and get him a lawyer, or should you do everything and anything imaginable to force a confession? Which course of action is most noble? You decide.

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City policy department. He is the editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.