Torture discussion

Vic and I have been trading emails arguing about whether torture can ever be excused. Vic took the trouble of looking up an old article by Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz which was published in the L.A. Times. I’m taking a copywrite liberty here by posting nearly half of what Dershowitz said but his comments are worth pondering. Has America had the public discussion about interrogation techniques that Israel had? I don’t know.

“Before 1999, Israel tried to come to terms with the torture issue. Rather than denying it publicly and winking at it privately like many other countries (and many police forces even in the United States), Israeli officials sought to codify what was and was not permissible in order to wage the most effective battle against terrorism within the rule of law.

They set out rules allowing “moderate physical pressure” in specific cases – including such non-lethal tactics as sleep deprivation, tying up prisoners in painful positions with hoods over their heads, violent shaking, and loud music. The argument was that such measures were justified in “ticking bomb” cases in which getting instant information out of a terrorist suspect about an imminent attack was essential.

Esther Wachsman, for example, whose son was kidnapped by militants, has said that she knew Israeli agents tortured a captured Palestinian to force him to reveal the 19-year-old’s whereabouts and that she had no regrets about it. “Was this man going to reveal this kind of information if they served him tea and played some Mozart?” she asked.

For some years the rules were in place, even though opponents argued that torture of any kind was a black-and-white issue – always wrong, never allowable.

In the end, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a decision in 1999 prohibiting all forms of rough interrogation. In rendering this decision, the court described in detail what was prohibited: shaking, stress positions, hooding, playing “powerfully loud music,” and other physical pressures. The court did leave open a tiny window in ticking-bomb cases. It suggested that if an interrogator honestly and reasonably believed that the only way to prevent an attack was to apply moderate physical pressure, he could try to convince a court after the fact that his actions fell under the defense of “necessity.” Thus far, no such defense has been offered.

This decision stimulated an important debate inside and outside Israel. It is unlikely that it ended all physical abuse, but even Israel’s most strident critics acknowledge that it certainly has been curtailed.”

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