Al-Qaeda’s Read Our Playbook

by Jonah Goldberg

From a reader:

You guys at the Corner are missing the point in your debate over waterboarding. Bush always said that we couldn’t discuss enhanced interrogation techniques because it would allow the terrorists to train against them. He was right. What our enemies have learned from reading the “torture” memos, is that Americans don’t torture their enemies. The truth is (and our enemies now now it) they will never be safer than when Americans are trying to get information out of them. They have learned that the experiences they might once have perceived as intimidating were, in fact, carefully choreographed to ensure their safety. If captured by Americans, they may be startled by loud noises, have water splashed in their faces, or suffer the sleep deprivation of the average American college student studying for final exams, but they can rest assured, no harm will come to them. Their own mother’s couldn’t have guaranteed their safety with such certainty.

The only torture will be in the souls of anguished Americans who will continue to debate the waterboarding issue — even now that it has become totally irrelevant.

I hear this sort of thing a lot and I think on one level it sounds very plausible. Knowing, even abstractly, that the American infidels won’t cross the line must surely help captured enemy combatants gird their loins against interrogators. But I’m a bit dubious it’s as clear-cut as all that in reality. Weeks of sleep deprivation and — if it comes to that — waterboarding have, by design, the tendency to diminish the clout of rational thought. My understanding is that you can train to resist and hold out against waterboarding, but eventually everyone caves. Is that not true? Can you train youself to withstand such harsh treatment permanently? Moreover, does al-Qaeda train its operatives in such a way? It sure doesn’t sound like the knickerbomber spent years being conditioned to resist American interrogation techniques.

It’s a bit like this argument that we can’t profile young Muslim men from certain regions because al-Qaeda will simply switch to Norwegian grandmothers. Well, no one ever said that profiling requires abandoning other techniques. And, more to the point, if it’s that easy for al-Qaeda to field terrorists that “look like America,” why haven’t they done so? Sure, there have been one or two outliers — a woman here, a white guy there — but if you’re hunting for suicide bombers it would still pay to look disproportionately for young men from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.

And, presumably, forcing al-Qaeda to change its recruiting tactics would put some useful and revealing pressure on them. For every Japanese woman who says, “Yes, I’ll blow myself up,” there’ve got to be quite a few who say, “Um, no thanks.”

Update: From a reader:

And more importantly, some who would go to the feds and alert them to the existence of someone plotting to recruit Japanese women.

Yeah, this was my intended point, but I guess I left it unclear.

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