Copyright by John T. Reed

Should the U.S. torture prisoners to get information out of them?


Torture is immoral

It’s immoral and it costs us the moral high ground that we held for over 200 years. It gives aid and comfort to our enemies ranging from al Qaeda to the out-of-office political party (Democrats or Republicans). It weakens the belief of our own people and military personnel in the rightness of our cause and behavior.

‘Cruel and unusual punishment’

“Cruel and unusual punishment” is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (part of the Bill of Rights). We got that phrase from the English Bill of Rights that was signed by British King William III in 1689. In other words, it is part and parcel of the “Judeo-Christian heritage” to which religionists incessantly refer.

Torture mongers will not doubt say that terrorists are not entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution because they are not citizens of the U.S. That’s not the issue. The question is whether torture is bad. Apparently, it is or the British would not have outlawed it for 350 years and we would not have outlawed it for 220 years.

We have been saying it was wrong for centuries

More importantly, we have been condemning others who tortured for centuries—holding ourselves above such behavior. We did not say those other countries were allowed to torture because the people being tortured were not American citizens.

We were right to condemn torture, to refrain from it, and to claim to be above it. The mistake was to change that policy and posture.

Evidence gathered by torture is generally inadmissible in court. I know that many Americans say the terrorists have no U.S. citizen rights. But one of the basic ideas of U.S. citizen rights is that we do not punish someone until he is proven guilty. Labeling someone a terrorist does not necessarily mean he is. He may just have been at the wrong place at the right time. The reason for the rules of evidence and all that is to make sure we do not punish innocent people. That is a fundamental human moral principle, not a privilege reserved only for U.S. citizens.

In fact, sometimes in the war on terror, we have decided to prosecute terrorists in court. When we do, torture may torpedo the prosecution of a guilty man. No one can be in favor of letting a guilty man go free because we poisoned the trial with pre-trial torture.

Golden Rule

One reason to prohibit torture is to get our enemies to do the same. That worked quite well in the two world wars in Europe. We treated German and Italian prisoners of war well and those who were not in the care of the SS were also treated well by the Germans. Movies like Stalag 17 and TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes told roughly accurate stories about German treatment of allied prisoners of World War II in Europe.

True, we treated the Japanese prisoners of war equally well, but that was not reciprocated by the Japanese toward our prisoners of war. Arguably, the Japanese were bigger racists than the Germans during World War II. Plus, the Germans saw most Americans as the same race as the Germans. The Japanese military saw all Americans as Untermensch. But I have never seen any indication that America regrets treating Japanese prisoners of war humanely in spite of the well-known fact that the Japanese did not reciprocate.

That particular motivation for a policy against torture should continue in spite of the fact that extraordinarily barbaric enemies like the Japanese in World War II and al Qaeda now often do not reciprocate. We are right to apply the adjective “barbaric” to the World War II Japanese military. And we are right to contrast that barbaric behavior with our own treatment of Japanese prisoners of war. We were wrong to become barbaric as part of our response to 9/11.

Our enemies in Vietnam did not conduct themselves toward allied prisoners as well as the German Luftwaffe (who ran the prison camps because most allied prisoners of war in World War II were shot-down air crewmen). But neither did the North Vietnamese behave as badly as the World War II Japanese. Similarly, we treated the North Vietnamese prisoners of war well, although the same could not always be said for our often barbaric South Vietnamese allies.

Recently, the Taliban have often treated various prisoners reasonably well. So did the Iraqi government before it fell under new management. Al Qaeda headquarters reprimanded Iraq al Qaeda chief Zarqawi before we killed him for beheadings and such. It was not good PR.

What if it saves American lives?

I am at a loss to understand why this argument is all of a sudden persuasive after not being so for the entire previous portion of our history. How many lives might have been saved if we had tortured every German we ever got our hands on during the two World Wars?

What is the mathematical rule? Can we torture 50 million Iraqis if it might save the lives of 50,000,001 Americans? Can we torture 20 Taliban if it might save the life of one U.S. general or three U.S. captains?


Then there is that word “might.” The current logic seems to be that if torturing one or more enemy prisoners might save American lives, it’s OK.


What if the guy we are torturing is completely innocent and knows nothing? That might happen mightn’t it? Is there another mathematical rule that it is better to torture nine innocent citizens of another country than to risk one American dying because we did not torture them?

What about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

What about the “fact” that torturing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got us all sorts of great information that saved lives.

I do not know it’s a fact.

I am a journalist. Who says that is what happened? How would they know for certain that it did? Where did this happen and where was the person reporting it when it happened? Is the person who claims to know this for a fact a reliable, truthful person? Does he or she have a conflict of interest that might prevent them from giving accurate testimony on this matter?

As far as I can tell, some unknown person just started bandying about that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave up fabulous information when he was being tortured but the statement was so desirable for the pro-torture crowd that they glommed onto it without demanding proof that it is true.

‘Due process’

Our laws require that we give non-citizens “due process of law.” I repeat, that’s non-U.S. citizens.

As with the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment,” the phrase “due process of law” comes from our English ancestors. The phrase was first used in the Magna Carta which was signed by the British king in 1215. It is in the Fifth (Bill of Rights) and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It basically requires that you not punish or incarcerate people without giving them a chance to present their side of the dispute.

I agree that prisoners of war should not be given due process of law. However, the concept of prisoners of war means uniformed enemy soldiers who make no claim to be anything other than enemy soldiers. The application of the word “war” to such thing as poverty, cancer, and terror, has gone well beyond the original concept of uniformed soldiers of an enemy country with whom we are at war. Now, the word “war” has become mere political spin.

Enemy combatant is not any better. These are civilians who claim to be innocent civilians. Depending upon the process that captured them, they may truly be innocent civilians or guilty civilians who were engaging in violent acts or, more likely, they may be something in between like accessories before or after the fact or supporters of those committing the violent acts.

Phrases like “prisoners of war” and “enemy combatant” are vague and/or applied to widely varying groups of people. Combined with a license to torture, they lead to indiscriminate, instant, mass atrocities.

As I said, our laws normally have always given even foreigners in the U.S. the right of due process of law. Not because they are citizens, but because it is the right way to treat people.

True, prisoners of war in the uniformed-opposing-countries sense cannot be given due process of law because of the exigencies of war. But the fact that we do give due process to foreigners in non-prisoner of war situations belies the notion that only U.S. citizens get the benefits of our magnificent Constitution and rule of law. Giving every nickel-and-dime member of the U.S. military the right to torture any non-U.S. citizen is an extremely bad idea that will have a net cost to our national reputation that far exceeds any information that could be gained.

Enemy response to capture of their colleagues

I have never seen this discussed in the media but it is a key consideration. Whenever a person who knows military secrets is captured by the enemy, the colleagues of the person who was captured instantly take action to render what he knows obsolete. For example, if we ever lost a monthly code book when I was in the Army, they would immediately issue new ones to everyone and order the prior code books be destroyed and the prior codes never be used again.

Any future actions that were known by the captured person would be canceled or greatly modified. Hidden assets or persons would immediately be moved to new locations unknown to the captured person.

If you were an enemy secret spy or saboteur, the moment you heard a colleague who knew your identity or location was captured by the enemy, you would hightail it and most likely get completely out of the under-cover business. During World War II, allied personnel who escaped from behind German lines were not allowed to be on the front any more for fear they might be recaptured and give up the identities of those who helped them escape.

This has always been true of all militaries and spy services. It does not matter whether the country that captured the person has a policy for or against torture. Mere incarceration causes many to talk.

So not only is information obtained by torture usually useless because a tortured person will tell you whatever you want to hear even if he knows nothing about it. Americans in World War II who were tortured to reveal the secrets of the Norden Bomb Sight drew many diagrams of how it worked even though they never knew how it worked. But even the good information that a captured enemy knows is generally useless because the mere fact that the person has been captured means that the enemy will make immediate changes that renders the information obsolete.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed