At long last, the United States is rightly celebrating a key success in the struggle against international terrorism: We have brought to justice Osama bin Laden, longtime head of al-Qaeda and a prime architect of the 9/11 attacks. No defender of democracy or the lives of the innocent can be sorry to hear that bin Laden will no longer be able to lend his spurious moral authority to calls for jihad against the West. The world is a safer place, and is now vexed by one less strident voice of unreason, hatred, and fanatical violence.
Bin Laden was for some time largely neutralized as an operative force for terror, yet he has symbolically represented much worse than the damage he personally has been able to cause: namely, a willingness to put aside all moral norms of justice, charity, honesty, and decency in service of a cause he deeply believed in.
There are two victories, then, in this mission: one over bin Laden as a threat to our safety and security, and one over bin Laden as the face of moral fanaticism. This second victory can only be sustained, however, if we refuse the temptation of joining bin Laden by being willing to do anything in service of our ends. Our success, significant though it is, cannot become for us the measure against which all that has been done these past ten years is to be measured.
Some have already seized upon the report that “detainee interrogation” was instrumental in determining bin Laden’s location to suggest that “enhanced interrogation” works and has thereby been justified. And we can, I believe, expect these claims to be made more often and more vocally in the coming days.
U.S. forces discovered Bin Laden’s compound by following an al-Qaeda courier who had been identified by the CIA some four years earlier on the basis of information gleaned at Guantanamo Bay. The courier was part of Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s network, and KSM, as he is now popularly known, was waterboarded repeatedly; it is certainly possible that the information about the courier was obtained in this way.
Of course, it is also possible that it was not. No one, to my knowledge, denies that good and valuable information has been gleaned over the past several years by non-coercive interrogation. In fact, some analysts have argued that it is precisely a more “friendly” approach that bears the best fruit. Given the information that we have to this point, it would be false to claim that enhanced interrogation was responsible for our success in this case.
But even if it were, it is imperative that we remember that this is not enough to justify the continued use of such techniques. As I and others have argued, enhanced interrogation techniques claim the greatest potential for success when employed to break down the subject, to damage his bodily and mental integrity to the point at which he has no choice but to talk (a reply often made to this is that in such a condition, men will say anything, thus calling into question the value of their testimony).
Degrees of discomfort and even perhaps pain that are short of this disintegrating level can be permissible to provide inducements—like rewards for good behavior—and some disincentives for non-compliance can be rightly applied. But hardened terrorists are likely to resist such efforts, and the temptation, as evidenced at Guantanamo and elsewhere, is to go further in forcing the compliance of the interrogation subject.
This sort of approach to the problem of interrogation, whether it is effective or not, is profoundly disrespectful to the person being interrogated or, more accurately, to the person whose treatment now approaches outright torture. Euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation” or the somewhat more honest “torture lite” seek to conceal the fundamental similarity of such approaches with what would be recognized by anyone as torture: the attempt, through debilitating pain, physical mutilation, or unendurable psychic pressure to destroy the unity, identity, and integrity of the living human subject.
But the human person—every human person—is a rational being, a child of God, and a being possessed of that radical inalienable dignity that is shared by all members of the species. To attempt to break down any person—even if only “up to a point”—is to fail to respect their personal nature in a deep way.
Still, many will appeal to the consequences of enhanced interrogation, which has finally brought the reign of bin Laden to an end. Yet the appeal to consequences is of little to no value here: Do we really know that the death of bin Laden outweighs the physical and mental damage done to the interrogatory subjects, or the moral damage done to those tasked with carrying out the interrogation, or to our reputation in the Arab world, or indeed to the West’s relationship with Islam for the next century and beyond?
Torture of various sorts, interrogational and otherwise, was used to serve immediate political ends in the years following the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in England and Europe: The accumulated hatred and distrust between Catholics and Protestants could perhaps have been foreseen, but then again perhaps not. Yet in retrospect we can see that even in ignorance of the consequences, a radically different path than the bloody and coercive one should have been pursued by the era’s Catholic and Protestant regimes.
To repeat: The close of the bin Laden era is cause for great satisfaction and rejoicing; the mission itself appears to have been a marvel of planning, and to have been restrained in its use of force and in the blood that was shed. It is a proud moment for the United States and for all the world.
But we should nonetheless see bin Laden as just a man, and our triumph as something more than just the accomplishment of his death: We have brought to justice a man who was the face of justice flouted, of humanity foresworn, of peace destroyed. These ideals must remain ours, and we must not be co-opted by the allure of a motto bin Laden clearly lived: “by any means necessary.”
Christopher Tollefsen, a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and author, with Robert. P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.
Torture: What It Is, and Why It is Wrong