The terrorist attacks on London’s transportation system place recent reports of American soldiers’ abuse of detainees at Guantanamo in a new perspective: They illustrate the unintended consequences of absolute prohibitions and generalizations about the treatment of prisoners.
The Pentagon’s own investigations reveal that incidents at Guantanamo include the chaining of a detainee to the ground in an interrogation cell, another inmate silenced with adhesive tape over his mouth, and a female interrogator pretending to smear menstrual blood on a prisoner’s face.
The treatment of one important prisoner–Mohamed al-Qahtani, a Saudi who has admitted being the so-called 20th hijacker for the September 11, 2001, attacks–is particularly intriguing. He had tried to enter the U.S. in August 2001 but was denied entry by an immigration agent at the Orlando airport. (Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, reportedly was in the airport at the same time.)
What heinous torture was inflicted on this co-conspirator of mass murderers? According to the Pentagon, he was forced to wear a bra, to stand naked in front of a female interrogator while being subjected to lengthy interrogations, a thong was placed on his head, and he was led around on a leash and menaced by a guard dog. In addition, Al-Qahtani was told that his mother and sister were whores, he was called a homosexual and forced to dance with another man–but he was never actually injured.
Maybe not America at its finest, but it sounds to me no worse than pledging a college fraternity at (a pledge at a University of California, Berkeley, fraternity recently was shot repeatedly with a BB gun), but Democratic politicians were outraged. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) expressed his distaste at such treatment, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) complained, “I am deeply concerned about the failure–indeed, outright refusal–of our military and civilian leaders to hold higher-ups accountable for the repeated reports of abuse and torture of the prisoners at Guantanamo.”
Maybe these senators have forgotten, or just don’t care, that these aggressive methods of interrogation “led to breaking Kahtani’s resistance and to solid intelligence gains,” according to Air Force lieutenant general Randall M. Schimdt, who investigated the charges of abuse for the Pentagon.
That takes us back to the London underground and bus attacks. Let us suppose that one of the suicide bombers had been apprehended en route to the rendezvous, bragged that he was part of a terrorist cell that was planning later that day to carry out a coordinated series of attacks, but refused to reveal any details. Would Senators Levin and Kennedy object to his being interrogated aggressively? Could the interrogators call him names? How about letting a guard dog snarl at him?
I know that given the chance, I’d be right there with my black bag, syringes, and a mini-pharmacopeia of possible “truth sera.” Beyond that, it’s probably politic that I don’t spell it out, but in exigent circumstances, extremes can be justified. Or putting it another way, in order to save dozens–or thousands–of lives, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over extreme interventions.
–Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, headed the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. His latest book is The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution.