Is Torture a Tool in the War on Terror?

Most U.S. officials recognize that torture is "not only murky and inappropriate, but not an effective law enforcement tool," said Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch. "It's hard to trust information obtained through torture," he said. "People will talk, but they will say anything."

Kara Gotsch, of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said that while some Muslim prisoners in the United States have accused corrections officials of discrimination, she has not had any indication that the police have been abusive.

Bob Tuttle, a professor at The George Washington University Law School, said he hasn't seen much of a change. "I don't see any signs that people would consider torture to be no longer off limits," he said.

But Dr. Michael Popich, who teaches religion and ethics classes at Westminster College in Utah, said he has seen a slight change.

In the past year, "students seem a little less likely to condemn it outright," he said. "Since we were attacked by terrorists, they seem to have given up a kind of adamant stance against it," he said.

A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll from November 2001 said roughly one-third of Americans would support government-sanctioned torture of terror suspects held in the United States or abroad.

Why It Matters

Professor Thomas Cushman, who teaches at Wellesley College in Massachusetts said it's not a surprise that the issue of torture has become more prominent these days.

"Wars on terrorism and torture tend to go together," he said, citing Israel's continuing struggle with the Palestinians. Israel has admitted to subjecting detainees to excruciatingly uncomfortable postures, covering their heads with filthy and malodorous sacks and depriving them of sleep.

But few would dispute the dangers of turning to torture. Cushman observed that the regimes best known for practicing torture, such as Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, have been short-lived. "It's a desperate move by a desperate government," he said.

Hodgett cited another pitfall concerning torture: It could spread from solely being used against potential terrorists, to the mainstream.

It happened in Britain's fight against terrorists from Northern Ireland, he said. Some of the techniques used by modern-day torturers — like the "helicopter treatment," where a blindfolded prisoner is pushed out of the vehicle only to discover he is just a few feet off the ground — were invented in this period, Hodgett said.

"Once you allow [torture], it becomes difficult to contain," Popich said. "Once you let the camel put the nose in the tent, pretty soon you'll have the whole camel in there."

While civil rights activists have raised the greatest alarm, it's a possibility that has been considered by others, as well.

"A part of it is inevitable," said Montville, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an international think tank. "The human instinct to survive physical assault [like Sept. 11] is much stronger than the one to preserve civil liberties."

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