How to handle captured Al Qaeda terrorists

Posted: Mar 04, 2003 12:00 AM
The president's first word upon hearing the news was "fantastic." We can only imagine the elation among FBI and CIA officials who stalked Khalid Shaikh Mohammed for the past 18 months. Mohammed is reportedly the No. 3 man in Al Qaeda, responsible for operational planning. The idea to hijack airliners loaded with fuel and human beings, and crash them into buildings was reportedly his brain child, as were the details -- which pilots to use, how to pull off the hijackings, how to transfer the funds, which targets to choose. The New York Times reports that since Sept. 11, 2001, Muhammed moved frequently, staying one step ahead of his pursuers by staying briefly in Karachi, Faisalabad, Peshawar and other cities, before finally being apprehended in Rawalpindi. Throughout his travels, however, Muhammed remained the hub of the Al Qaeda organization, staying in touch with many operatives through email, coded telephone messages and couriers. It was the volume of messages to and from Muhammed that apparently moved the Department of Homeland Security to raise the threat alert last month. He was called "the brain" of Al Qaeda. And what a twisted, evil brain it is. Muhammed is believed to have planned the Bali nightclub bombing that killed 192 people and may well be the man who personally beheaded Daniel Pearl on videotape. He knows everything there is to know about Al Qaeda. But so far, during interrogations, he has merely recited phrases from the Koran. What should we do with him? Professor Alan Dershowitz, the noted liberal law professor at Harvard, caused heads to snap after Sept. 11 by
recommending torture for captured but uncooperative terrorists. Suppose, Dershowitz asked, a criminal had kidnapped your child and placed him in an underground bunker with only enough oxygen to last for three hours. He is captured but refuses to reveal the child's location. Should we not use torture on the kidnapper to save the child? Or suppose the hypothetical were changed to make it a nuclear bomb timed to explode in three hours. Would we then countenance torture to save a city? I would. My rage over what was done to Americans on Sept. 11 has not cooled. The trouble is, torture makes my skin crawl -- even torture of a disgusting killer. Besides, life is rarely like a law school hypothetical. The hypothetical assumes that the kidnapper has the information to impart. That may or may not be true of a terrorist. He may know only his small piece of the puzzle. It is also possible that the Pakistani police could capture the wrong guy, and we might torture an innocent man. There are further problems with torture. It's unreliable. Some people never crack under torture (though they are extremely rare). Others confess to everything -- including things they've never done. Our soldiers have signed papers under torture confessing to spying, war crimes, the works. So while some information extracted by torture might be useful, some would not -- and we'd have to sort out the true from the false. Besides, there are other ways. Experts quoted on "60 Minutes" and in various newspaper reports debunk sodium pentothal, cautioning that there is no such thing as "truth serum." This is surely true. No known drug can make a person honest. But sodium pentothal does have disinhibiting effects on the brain; it causes our normal controls to relax and our tongues to loosen. And while we cannot be sure the information obtained through use of the drug is accurate, we can compare it with other information and cross-check. We'd have to do the same with information extracted by torture anyway. Finally, there is alcohol. For millennia, captives or dupes have revealed secret information after a few drinks. And while strict Muslims are supposed to abstain, there is reason to believe that the rule is honored in the breach often enough. Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers reportedly spent their last night at lap-dancing bars. "The events of Sept. 11 require us to imagine the unimaginable and think the unthinkable," Alan Dershowitz warned. He's right. But torture is not the answer. A cocktail of booze and sodium pentothal just might be.