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James Shott / Dec. 16, 2014

America's Dilemma: Terrorism at Home Versus the High Moral Ground

A young pilot was flying a mission over enemy territory long ago and far away when defense forces badly damaged his plane, forcing him to eject. The ejection was violent, breaking both arms and one leg, and the young pilot landed in water, nearly drowning before enemy soldiers found him, dragged him ashore, crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt, stabbed him with a bayonet, and then hauled him away for interrogation. Badly injured, he was given no medical aid, but instead was put through brutal questioning sessions during which he was beaten.

He spent six weeks in a hospital where he received marginal medical treatment before being sent to another military camp. In a chest cast and being badly emaciated, he was expected not to last a week.

His condition improved slowly as time passed. But while he was ill with dysentery he was again subjected to interrogation and torture that included rope bindings and beatings every two hours, punishment so severe that he tried to kill himself to escape the brutal treatment. Eventually, he reached his breaking point, and cooperated with his captors.

A second story of actual treatment of an enemy involved the capture, interrogation and detainment in military custody that lasted several years. During this time the captive was subjected to sleep deprivation for a period of more than seven days, rectal hydration, forced standing for prolonged periods, and was water boarded five times. Eventually, the captive’s will also broke, and he cooperated with his captors.

While the treatment in the second example would certainly be unpleasant, it is less severe than the experience of the pilot in the first example, inasmuch as the captive’s life was never in danger. Some Americans, however, believe the two equally represent torture.

The pilot in the first example was now-Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., and he was shot down over Viet Nam, captured and tortured by the Viet Cong.

The person in the second example was Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and a foiled attempt likely aimed at the U.S. Capitol building or the White House, claiming the lives of nearly 3,000 innocent people.

Torture is the action of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, and has been practiced through the ages, and has included the most brutal treatment imaginable.

In interrogation sessions, some techniques are clearly torture, and some techniques are clearly not torture. Somewhere in the middle of these extremes, strong interrogation crosses the thin and fuzzy line into torture. Where that point is seems to be a matter of personal preference.

Having released a controversial partisan report on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee charges that the CIA’s techniques constitute torture.

The CIA vigorously disputes the Democrat leadership’s report, saying the methods were thoroughly analyzed and approved by legal consultants prior to their implementation, and that Congressional leaders were briefed on them and accepted the program. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is said to have encouraged the program.

The United States does indeed profess and uphold high-minded ideals, and most Americans oppose torture. And through this $40 million report and comments by individual senators, we are told that torture is always and forever wrong.

But is there never a circumstance where torture is justified?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., thinks not. “In the wake of 9/11, we were desperate to bring those responsible for the brutal attacks to justice. But even that urgency did not justify torture,” states the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The United States must be held to a higher standard than our enemies, yet some of our actions did not clear that bar.”

We learn that al Qaeda has placed a suitcase nuke in a major city set to detonate in a few hours. We have captured a member of the group and Sen. Feinstein questions him. He refuses to tell where the bomb is. “Okay. Thank you. Have a nice day,” she says. “After all, we are a people of principle and high morals, and won’t stoop to forceful interrogation.”

Who and how many American lives have to be at risk before those like Sen. Feinstein, clinging to the high moral ground, resort to forceful interrogation methods to save lives? Her spouse? Her hometown? Her Capital office? Or would she sacrifice American lives just to maintain the idealistic moral high ground?

You do not have to support routine use of torture to believe that in extreme cases, torture is acceptable. Many Americans believe nothing is too awful to use on an enemy in order to save lives.

So the issue is not that the United States can never use techniques generally agreed to be torture against enemies, but instead to clarify under what circumstances the United States will use those techniques, and how those decisions will be made?

Routine or indiscriminate torture is wrong. Any method used against knowledgeable enemies to save lives must be encouraged. Foolishly clinging to the high moral ground will get Americans needlessly killed.


James Shott is a columnist for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, and publishes his columns on several Websites, including his own, Observations.

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