Terrorism Can Never Destroy Us; Torture Could


he interrogation summaries detail religious fanaticism at its worst. A foreign power, suspecting attacks by religious terrorists, rounded up and interrogated key members of the religious minority. Some confessed to a terrorist conspiracy under torture; others confessed after torture, and some confessed even before torture was applied. The interrogation reports revealed detailed and specific networks of extremists poisoning critical water systems by orders of fanatical leaders. Operational details were confirmed by multiple prisoners. The prisoners also revealed there were no moderates among the accused’s faith. The summary was sent to nearby governments so that appropriate countermeasures could be taken. Within three years hundreds of municipalities had uncovered similar plots against their water sources. Mass deportations and executions eliminated the threat. Torture, it appeared, worked.

Except we know now that all the people tortured and killed were innocent. The report described interrogations conducted in 1348, and the “terrorists” were blameless Jews in Savoy caught up in a panicked response to The Black Death, a terrifying disease spread by lice and rats across devastated medieval Europe. Jews were scapegoated, and thousands were consumed by flames in mass executions.


The Black Death in the mid-14th century caused panic in the population. Suspicion fell on Jews, and many were tortured to confirm the wrongheaded theory they had poisoned the wells. In 1349, several hundred Jews were burned alive in what became known as the Strasbourg massacre

Torture extracts information, just not accurate information. The 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that: “The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees . . . the use of the CIA’ s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”  Former Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Slahi, when asked if torture worked replied, “In what way? If working’s bringing pain on me, yes. If working is giving false confessions, yes. If “works” is giving good intelligence, no.”

Despite these clear facts, the current President stated, “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works….And if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.”

We’ve long known civil treatment and building rapport with prisoners works. “We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, who was one of the leading interrogators during World War II. The great German Interrogator Hanns Scharff “always treated his prisoners with respect and dignity and by using [psychological rather than] physical techniques, he was able to make them drop their guard and converse with him even though they were conditioned to remain silent.” Scharff’s methods were successfully adapted by some interrogators in Iraq and Guantanamo. Empirical studies confirm Scharff’s methods “revealed significantly more, and more precise, new information.”

But arguments about torture’s effectiveness miss the more important issue. Torture violates everything we stand for: Individual rights; limitations on the power of government; and respect for the dignity of everyone.  Our prisoner treatment must reflect these ideals to effectively recruit and retain sources among our adversaries, who reject these concepts as weak.

It is this aspect that Administration advocates of torture, including the President, miss about the current struggle: its ethical and moral component.  Our adversaries’ anti-humanist policies are what separates us from them. Islamist terrorists kill all who have flawed faith. Russia kills any who endanger strongman rule. North Korea is an insular religious cult. Iranian citizens face arbitrary punishment for peaceful expression and assembly.  Their inhumane system is precisely what makes them our enemies.


“In waterboarding, the mouth and nose are filled with water, but the head incline prevents it from reaching the lungs. Breathing becomes difficult, and the subject panics.” (Image and description courtesy Washington Post)

America’s greatest intelligence coups often walked into our doors because we offered something better than the oppression and torture offered by our adversaries. Most of the great spies in history — Pyotr Popov, Oleg Gordievsky and Oleg Penkovsky — were walk-ins. CIA received critical information on Iran’s nuclear weapons program from a walk-in. When individuals within a terrible system become disillusioned they will seek protection and safety. We must be that sanctuary.

Torture will destroy our souls and our nation far faster than it will destroy our enemies. It is un-American, and inconsistent with our country’s founding moral values.  Torture will damage our ability to collect intelligence that will protect troops and citizens alike.  It must be opposed by all citizens.



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