A New Rise Of Brutality: Justice

7 October 2004

By Stentor Danielson

There's a time bomb set to go off in Manhattan, killing millions of people. The only person who knows how to disarm it is the terrorist who built it, and he's not telling. If doing so would make him talk and allow you to save Manhattan, would you torture him?

As a philosophical dilemma, questions like this can be interesting and revealing about our moral instincts (in the scenario as stipulated, I would torture him). But they have precious little to do with any actual policy dilemmas we face.

The ticking time bomb scenario was hauled out to justify the abuses at Abu Ghraib. It has surfaced again as a defense for "extraordinary rendition," a scheme for outsourcing torture to rogue states. Extraordinary rendition has been practiced before -- by the Clinton administration combating the terrorist group Egyptian Jihad in the Balkans, and by the current administration when they sent Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria.

A provision in the House version of a bill implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations would make extraordinary rendition a legal tactic for our government. The bill would place the burden of proof on the victim to prove that he or she had been tortured, an exceedingly difficult bar to meet for someone locked away in the dungeons of a shadowy regime. Public outcry prompted the administration to issue a denunciation of extraordinary rendition, despite claims that they had been quietly supporting it. An attempt by Democrats to excise the torture provision was struck down on a party line vote.

One message from professional interrogators is clear: torture doesn't work. The ticking time bomb scenario has to make it a premise of the question that the terrorist would tell you how to disarm the bomb, because in real life that wouldn't happen. A person being tortured will say whatever they think will make the pain stop. There's no way to be certain you can trust what you're told, unless you can corroborate it with other evidence -- and if you have other evidence, you don't need to torture anyone.

But if torture is worthless as a pragmatic tool, why do so many people who ought to know better -- such as the Justice Department -- still support extraordinary rendition? Torture is an expressive act, designed to send a message to ourselves and others -- a message made all the more effective by its ability to masquerade as a pragmatic tool. Torture says "do not mess with us, because we are ruthless. We are willing to make the toughest choices in order to defend ourselves."

This is especially true for the sort of regimes that would do the torturing under a policy of extraordinary rendition. In a world where the ideals of human rights are at least paid lip service everywhere, authoritarian regimes are haunted by a fear of illegitimacy. Torture allows these regimes to hear what they want to hear, while pretending that they're hearing the truth. The myth of the victim's defenses being crushed so that he spills the unvarnished truth makes it easy for the torturer to seduce him- or herself. By torturing alleged terrorists, they can use their victims to convince themselves that they're on the side of justice.

Extraordinary rendition also acts as a gift to authoritarian regimes. The United States has cozied up to a number of odious dictators, from Uzbekistan to Syria, in the name of fighting terrorism. Our rhetorical commitment to freedom requires the occasional condemnation, as when President Bush denounced Russian president Vladimir Putin's recent moves to squash Russian democracy. But our tyrannical allies need some back-room assurance that we're in this together.

Extraordinary rendition sends the message that our high-minded rhetoric about human rights is just a PR campaign to keep the voters happy. By turning over suspects -- usually ones already wanted by the host country -- for torture, we give a stamp of approval to the torturers. We confirm that the rules can be broken in the name of combating terrorism. This is the same message that the ticking time bomb scenario communicates -- there are some situations that call for extraordinary tactics, and our current predicament is one of them.

It's one thing to look the other way when an ally commits an abuse, in order to preserve the relationship -- not a noble thing, but sometimes a necessary one. It's quite another thing to actively take advantage of their abuses -- and it's unconscionable. Extraordinary rendition does the latter.

Extraordinary rendition does not make America safer from terrorists. It creates a false feeling of toughness, and offers aid and comfort to odious regimes. The only silver lining is that it reveals the darkness in the hearts of those leaders who back it.

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