(Centennial Fellow) Give the left an inch and watch for a thousand miles of hyperbole, as in concluding mainly from a few instances of waterboarding that the United States under George W. Bush became a sadistic, Nazi–style torture haven for no productive reason.
That last assumption—that nothing came out of the exercise to justify it—has once more been seriously challenged, this time by the revelation that tough interrogation techniques produced information happily facilitating Osama bin Laden’s exit from terrorism and other earthly activities. The left hates this idea so much that The New York Times did a front page story to muddy the waters.
Yes, the story conceded, maybe getting mean with a bad guy did give us clues “crucial” in finally figuring out where bin Laden was, but it then went into some other contrary details at odds with the assertion of CIA Director Leon Panetta that waterboarding definitely helped finish this ugly career. On the one hand, you can believe the Times and its convoluted thinking, or on the other, you can believe the straightforward words of someone really, truly in the know.
The reason for saying all this isn’t to encourage some sort of uncontrolled, fingernail–pulling, bone–breaking, limb–stretching, eye–gouging assault on every suspected enemy who happens into our care. Torture is an evil, and those who excuse it by noting all the other evils in war—not the least of them being massive killing—miss the point. The conventions against torture are a means of saying that even war ought to have some rules, some inhibitions, some semi–civilizing guidance.
But much of what the left describes as torture, such as sleep deprivation, leaves me less than horrified. If that’s what we are talking about, shouldn’t the emotional tenor of the discussion come down a notch? Waterboarding is different. If not as physically painful as something like a branding iron on flesh, it can be torture psychologically. But it can also be administered by degrees, and to say every instance of it produces grievous agony is like saying every shove equals a shove off a skyscraper.
Hey, some e–mailer will ask, would you like a dose of waterboarding, and my response will be yes, come and get me if I am an enemy combatant refusing to divulge information that might save innocent lives, nothing else has been effective and there’s reason to be in a hurry. It’s said that other, more reserved techniques work better, and with some people they might, especially if there is no rush, but with some others, they do not. Despite lots of blather to the contrary, history is full of evidence that being more the snarling dog than the meowing pussycat can reward the astute interrogator.
Keep in mind that the United States did not use waterboarding on thousands or hundreds or even dozens of people, but on three who were especially resistant to talking and believed to be especially dangerous. I think the Bush administration signed on to the practice for the same reason Barack Obama as president changed his campaign tune, deciding we should continue rendition, indefinite detention, Guantanamo operations and the Patriot Act. My guess is he was told by intelligence experts that the chances of successful, catastrophic terrorism would increase many times if we did not keep doing these things.
I do not deny there may have been times when our “enhanced interrogation techniques” went too far. I do favor caution in employing them, and I am definitely against cruel treatment of incarcerated citizens, as in the way the government until lately was abusing the soldier accused of handing classified information over to WikiLeaks. But let’s quit the hysterical overstatements, and let’s get real about being in a threatening anti–terrorist conflict that sometimes demands extraordinary measures.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow.