Flashbacks December 2006

Torture and Terror

Articles by Mark Bowden and others consider what tactics are appropriate for eliciting potentially lifesaving information

Though the Bush Administration denies that it employs torture as part of its anti-terror arsenal, evidence to the contrary continues to surface. Most recently it has come to light that secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department in 2005 may have authorized harsh interrogation tactics that the White House publicly denounced as "abhorrent." While some argue that the kinds of extreme measures approved by the Justice Department memos might be justifiable if the stakes are high enough, others contend that torture is flat-out wrong and always inexcusable. As this collection of Atlantic writings suggests, the question of what kinds of interrogation tactics are appropriate in what situations is often murky.

Also see:

"The Ploy" (May 2007)
The inside story of how the interrogators of Task Force 145 cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's inner circle—without resorting to torture—and hunted down al-Qaeda's man in Iraq. By Mark Bowden

"A Nasty Business" (January 2002)
Gathering "good intelligence" against terrorists is an inherently brutish enterprise, involving methods a civics class might not condone. Should we care? By Mark Bowden

In “The Dark Art of Interrogation” (October 2003), Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, suggested that torture may be the most powerful tool the American military has in the fight against terrorism. But he argued that the public’s understanding of torture is too simplistic. He explained that there are different gradations of torture, the appropriateness of which varies with the situation, victim, and interrogator. The word “torture,” for example, should not necessarily apply when moderate physical or psychological abuse—such as sleep deprivation, drugs or rough treatment (slapping or shaking)—are used to obtain life-saving information.  In such cases, he argued, the word “coercion” is more appropriate. Likewise, threatening to harm a prisoner’s family members or friends—with no intention of actually following through on those threats—should not necessarily be classified as torture either. Yet he pointed out that there have been a number of incidences in which those who have made such threats have subsequently been accused of torture for inflicting severe psychological stress.

Bowden began his argument with a discussion of Sheik Mohammed, an al-Qaeda member involved in a number of major terror plots, including 9/11 and the slaughter of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Bowden argued that professional terrorists like Sheik Mohammed “pose one of the strongest arguments in modern times for the use of torture.”  While he conceded that “torture is repulsive” and expressed sympathy for those who are innocent victims of torture, he emphasized that professional terrorists pose a more difficult question:

They are lockboxes containing potentially life-saving information. Sheikh Mohammed has his own political and religious reasons for plotting mass murder, and there are those who would applaud his principled defiance in captivity. But we pay for his silence in blood.

Bowden revisited the subject a year later in “Lessons of Abu Ghraib” (July/August, 2004). The Abu Ghraib scandal had made it clear that even if coercive methods are sometimes justified, abusive treatment can easily become the norm. “The photos from Abu Ghraib prison,” Bowden observed, “portray Americans as exactly the sexually obsessed, crude, arrogant, godless occupiers that our enemies say we are.” The Americans’ smiling faces in the photographs, he noted, indicate that the perpetrators, besides lacking moral judgment, “felt licensed to abuse.” The only way to prevent interrogators from feeling this license would be to make them individually responsible for their behavior:

If I lean on an insurgent leader who knows where surface-to-air missiles are stockpiled, then I can offer the defense of necessity if charges are brought against me…. But when a prison, an army, or a government tacitly approves coercive measures as a matter of course, widespread and indefensible human rights abuses become inevitable. Such approval unleashes the sadists.

Finally, in June 2005, Stephen Budiansky’s article “Truth Extraction” offered an alternative perspective—suggesting that the effectiveness of torture may be overrated. In 1943, Budiansky explained, Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran had published a report, now considered a classic among military interrogators. Based on a study of efforts to get Japanese POWs to talk during World War II, it reached a surprising conclusion: “successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subject. They were nice to them.” Despite dealing with hostile subjects and alien cultures, the interrogators Moran studied had been able to successfully extract information without torturing their prisoners.

Presented by

Jennifer Percy is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In