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Why not torture terrorists?

(Second of two columns)

THE CONVENTION Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States ratified in 1994, prohibits the torture of any person for any reason by any government at any time. It states explicitly that torture is never justified -- ''no exceptional circumstances whatsoever . . . may be invoked as a justification for torture." Unlike the Geneva Convention, which protects legitimate prisoners of war, the Convention Against Torture applies to everyone -- even terrorists and enemy combatants. And it cannot be evaded by ''outsourcing" a prisoner to a country where he is apt to be tortured during interrogation.

In short, the international ban on torture -- a ban incorporated into US law -- is absolute. And before Sept. 11, 2001, few Americans would have argued that it should be anything else.

But in post-9/11 America, the unthinkable is not only being thought, but openly considered. And not only by hawks on the right, but by even by critics in the center and on the left.

''In this autumn of anger," Jonathan Alter commented in Newsweek not long after the terrorist attacks, ''a liberal can find his thoughts turning to -- torture." Maybe cattle prods and rubber hoses should remain off limits, he wrote, but ''some torture clearly works," and Americans had to ''keep an open mind" about using unconventional measures -- including ''transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies."

In March 2003, a few days after arch-terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan, Stuart Taylor Jr. acknowledged that he was probably being made to feel some pain. ''And if that's the best chance of making him talk, it's OK by me," he wrote in his National Journal column. In principle, interrogators should not cross the line into outright torture. But, Taylor continued, ''my answer might be different in extreme circumstances."

By ''extreme circumstances" he meant what is often called the ''ticking-bomb" scenario: A deadly terror attack is looming, and you can prevent it only by getting the information your prisoner refuses to divulge. Torture might force him to talk, thereby saving thousands of innocent lives. May he be tortured?

Many Americans would say yes without hesitating. Some would argue that torturing a terrorist is not nearly as wrong as refusing to do so and thereby allowing another 9/11 to occur. Others would insist that monsters of Mohammed's ilk deserve no decency.

As an indignant reader (one of many) wrote to me after last week's column on the cruel abuse of some US detainees, ''The terrorists . . . would cut your heart out and stuff it into the throat they would proudly slash open." So why not torture detainees, if it will produce the information we need?

Here's why:

First, because torture, as noted, is unambiguously illegal -- illegal under a covenant the United States ratified, illegal under federal law, and illegal under protocols of civilization dating back to the Magna Carta.

Second, because torture is notoriously unreliable. Many people will say anything to make the pain stop, while some will refuse to yield no matter what is done to them. Yes, sometimes torture produces vital information. But it can also produce false leads and desperate fictions. In the ticking-bomb case, bad information is every bit as deadly as no information.

Third, because torture is never limited to just the guilty. The case for razors and electric shock rests on the premise that the prisoner is a knowledgeable terrorist like Mohammed or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But most of the inmates in military prisons are nothing of the kind. Commanders in Guantanamo acknowledge that hundreds of their prisoners pose no danger and have no useful information. How much of the hideous abuse reported to date involved men who were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

And fourth, because torture is a dangerously slippery slope. Electric shocks and beatings are justified if they can prevent another 9/11? But what if the shocks and beating don't produce the needed information? Is it OK to break a finger? To cut off a hand? To save 3,000 lives, can a terrorist's eyes be gouged out? How about gouging out his son's eyes? Or raping his daughter in his presence? If that's what it will take to make him talk, to defuse the ticking bomb, isn't it worth it?

No. Torture is never worth it. Some things we don't do, not because they never work, not because they aren't ''deserved," but because our very right to call ourselves decent human beings depends in part on our not doing them. Torture is in that category. We can win our war against the barbarians without becoming barbaric in the process.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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