Sunday, September 17, 2006

Breaking the Enemy

We’ve got to get a grip on the issue of how to get the most valid information from captured enemy combatants. We do not want to routinely torture enemies, but we must recognize that our enemies are most likely not going to automatically spill their guts when they are captured. Our policy must allow interrogators to coerce, motivate, incentivize the enemy to tell us what we need to know to protect Americans.

It’s hard to understand why some Americans are more concerned that people who are trying to kill us are treated well than they are with trying to stop them from killing us or getting information from them about their plans to kill us. Even though the enemy is content to murder innocents, to behead their enemies, to cut off their fingers and toes, to gouge out their eyes, and to torture them to death, we must not stoop to their level. “We must maintain the moral high ground,” is one rationale. “We must follow the dictates of the Geneva Conventions,” is another.

Enemy combatants are almost always not U.S. citizens, and are not entitled to the protections of our Constitution. If they are citizens and have taken up arms against their country, they do not deserve Constitutional protections; they deserve to be treated the same as other enemies.

Enemy combatants these days are not members of the military of nations that were signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and are thus not entitled to those protections, either.

And if you or a loved one are killed in a terrorist attack that occurred because the government could not use every possible means to detect the threat and stop it, you aren’t going to care much whether you occupy the moral high ground or not.

In addition to their failure to recognize the importance of being able to extract vital information from our captured enemies, many Americans are also confused about what constitutes torture and what doesn’t.

Let’s imagine that we capture Akbar Bakr, an Arab Muslim, who is among a group of Muslim men planning an attack on an American city. The men resist and all but Akbar are killed. From materials found at the site it is learned that there are other members of the group who are in the process of planting a bomb somewhere in the city. Akbar has information we need. What do we do with Akbar?

The “treat ‘em with respect” faction would probably approve of the following scenario: Akbar is cuffed at the wrists and ankles and taken to a clean, modern facility for questioning. He is informed of his rights, by his interrogator—a man, since Muslims are insulted if they are placed in a position subservient to a woman—he is told that Americans do not torture captured enemy combatants. He is told that we do not approve of people trying to bomb our cities and kill innocent people. Akbar responds by spitting in the face of his interrogator, and screaming “Death to America” repeatedly. The interrogator asks Akbar if he can get him anything: an Arab language newspaper, a copy of the Quran, maybe some milk and cookies? Akbar spits and yells again. The interrogator asks Akbar what he and his now dead comrades were planning. More spitting and screaming. Akbar isn’t talking, but he gets a comfortable room, three squares a day and the opportunity to pray to Allah. The bomb goes off. Americans die.

The upshot of all of this is that when you are dealing with people who want to kill you, and have beheaded and tortured people to prove it, and don’t mind dying in the process, playing nice isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Scenario two: Akbar is bound at the wrists and ankles and taken to a facility for questioning. We ask him for information. When he spits at the guards and yells “Death to America,” he is slapped across his face and handled roughly by the guards. After another unsuccessful attempt, he is stripped naked, shoved into a metal chair and bound to it. He is told he will get food, water and sleep when the interrogators feel he has earned it. Akbar screams an obscenity. This time he gets a clinched fist to the nose. Akbar is told that we want to know what he knows. He doesn’t say anything. The interrogators leave. The temperature in the room drops to 32 degrees, and sounds of Yoko Ono singing and Cindy Sheehan shrieking are piped into the room at abnormally high decibel levels.

A little later the interrogators return and resume questioning. An occasional attitude adjustment is used to help loosen Akbar’s tongue. The interrogator takes a .45 automatic from his holster and puts it to Akbar’s head. Akbar is asked if he wants to live or die. “I will die in the service of Allah,” he says. The interrogator cocks the weapon, pauses, then says, “That’s too easy, Akbar. The first shot will be to your right hand; the second shot will be to your left knee; the third shot will be to your genitals; the rest of the shots will be to other non-lethal places on your body. Don’t worry; we won’t let you die. Is there anything you want to tell us?” Akbar grumbles. “You think about that for a few minutes.” The interrogator leaves, the temperature rises to 120 degrees, bright lights shine on Akbar, rap “music” with vulgar lyrics is played at ear-splitting levels for Akbar’s enjoyment.

The interrogator returns, asks Akbar if he wants to end his discomfort. He doesn’t, so the interrogator shoots Akbar in his right hand. Akbar screams in pain. He is told that when he gives us good information on the bomb and we find it before it goes off, he’ll get relief and medical treatment. If he doesn’t, or if he gives us bad information, the process will continue. He is asked again if he wants to talk. He doesn’t. The process continues. Akbar probably will talk. Probably before his manhood is blown off. But either way, he is going to be one miserable dude for a while. And we will at least have earnestly tried to get him to tell us what he knows through a process of progressively more coercive techniques, starting easy and ending mean.

It’s all about personal comfort, folks. As long as people are in their comfort zone, they can be uncooperative if they want to. But there is a point of discomfort for most of us that we want to avoid. Put us there and we’ll spill our guts. Some are trained to resist discomfort, and the threshold is higher for them. But if America isn’t willing to put the enemy in his discomfort zone to get critical information to save lives, we may as well wave the white flag and convert to Islam. Of course, we’ll still have the moral high ground.

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