WASHINGTON - The International Committee of the Red Cross has accused the United States of torturing enemy combatant prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to documents leaked to The New York Times. Does that mean U.S. interrogators are sticking needles under inmates' fingernails and attaching electrodes to sensitive body parts? Or are they merely beating prisoners senseless? Hardly.
The ICRC report hasn't been made public, but a memorandum summarizing its contents describes far less egregious behavior. Among the tactics the ICRC portrayed as "tantamount to torture" were solitary confinement, temperature extremes and using "forced positions" to obtain information from some of the about 500 men held at Guantanamo.
"The construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture," the Times quotes the ICRC report as alleging. But is it?
And if such methods are "torture," is the United States justified in using them anyway? Where do we draw the line between what are admittedly unpleasant, coercive methods used to elicit information that might save lives - thousands, even millions of them - and actions that are so repugnant they may never be used?
In an article in Commentary magazine a few months ago headlined "Torture: Thinking About the Unthinkable," Andrew C. McCarthy tried to answer that question.
Mr. McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney, led the prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As Mr. McCarthy makes clear, we are forced into debating the moral parameters of torture because of the very nature of our current enemy. The United States is not at war with a conventional army but with men whose aim is to kill innocent civilians in the most horrific manner possible.
When the Geneva Conventions and other international norms prohibiting torture were developed, Mr. McCarthy notes, they were intended to promote the humane treatment of captured soldiers who operated on behalf of nation-states or intrastate liberation movements. "They did not contemplate a core methodology - targeting civilians, randomly torturing and killing prisoners - that grossly and willfully violates the very premises of humanitarian law," writes Mr. McCarthy.
Starting on Sept. 11, 2001, we have witnessed the most heinous acts committed by Islamist fanatics: 3,000 civilians killed when 19 men flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon; some 200 tourists killed when Islamist terrorists bombed a Bali resort; the bombing of train stations in Spain, killing 200 people; the videotaped beheading of Nick Berg and others; and countless other acts of violence.
The only possible way to prevent such horrors is to obtain information that might interrupt future terrorist plots. And some of those who might lead us to other terrorists are now sitting in cells in Guantanamo.
What if one of these men had information that might prevent a nuclear attack on an American city? Would it be unthinkable to force him into uncomfortable physical positions? What about keeping him too warm or too cold in his cell, or blaring loud noises at him while he tries to sleep? Would it be immoral to make him fearful by playing on his phobias, or by depriving him of human contact for days or even months? Those are exactly the types of methods the ICRC describes as torture.
And what if the information we were seeking could prevent the loss of only a hundred lives, or a dozen, or even one? What if, for example, we had captured one of the terrorists who held Nick Berg captive while Mr. Berg was still alive? Would we have been justified in using whatever means necessary, if he might have led us to rescue Mr. Berg?
Mr. McCarthy suggests we need to create "controlled, highly regulated, and responsibly accountable conditions" to obtain information from enemy combatants. "Under such a system, the government would have to apply to a federal court for permission to administer a predetermined form of nonlethal torture," Mr. McCarthy argues. He says the current system amounts to "hypocrisy that turns a blind eye to that which it purports to forbid."
The ICRC does not appear to have uncovered anything approaching real torture. But perhaps it's time we put aside our squeamishness on this issue and opened a genuine debate about exactly what methods a humane society is justified in using to save innocent lives.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.