The current tide of moral outrage over the use of coercive interrogation methods during the Bush administration is poorly framed and misdirected.

Most condemnations cite the waterboarding used to wring cooperation from Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, mastermind of 9/11, and his al-Qaeda underling Abu Zubaydah. Labeling waterboarding “torture” places those who authorized and carried it out in legal jeopardy, which I agree is where they belong. The use of any coercive tactics against prisoners ought to expose those responsible to prosecution, although, as with any crime, law enforcement may choose in some instances not to proceed.

Though I respect the principle that flatly rejects any harsh method of interrogation, few fair-minded people would weigh that ethical purity more heavily than preventing further attacks like those that killed thousands in September 2001. Of all the people in custody worth twisting for critical intelligence, these two career mass murderers top the list.

The real damage done by Bush administration torture policies was the effort to codify coercion, which led to large-scale abuses at military prisons throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. By trying to legalize certain rough tactics, the White House predictably unleashed the sadists, the people who brought you Abu Ghraib and the horrors of Bagram, where prisoners were not just made uncomfortable or forced to experience drowning. At some war-zone military stockades, innocent Afghans and Iraqis were tortured and beaten to death.

Some of those responsible for these crimes have been prosecuted, but only ground-level soldiers and contractors. So far, those who effectively condoned this behavior have avoided such consequences. The “torture” memos generated in the White House may have been an attempt to provide legal cover for top-level interrogators, but their effect was to declare open season on even the lowest-level detainees, something that I and many other critics warned would happen.

First, a word about terminology. “Torture is a term broad enough to define everything from gouging out a man’s eyes to keeping him awake. Most people recognize a substantial difference between the two extremes, but those on the warpath against the “torturers” demand the broadest possible definition. I am willing to concede the point. Twisting a prisoner for information means embarking on a slippery slope, and even the mildest forms of pressure can be pushed to a sadistic and even fatal extreme.


Which is why all forms of torture, broadly defined, ought to be banned. What does such a ban mean? It means that anyone who gets rough with a prisoner is crossing the line and placing himself at risk. This, history makes clear, is the only way to curb the universal tendency of men to abuse those over whom they wield complete control.

This does not mean that there can be no circumstance in which torture is justified, at least to those who would not adhere blindly to principle. Life presents moral dilemmas, and combat in particular produces them. To obtain life-saving intelligence when no alternative means are at hand, a moral person might reluctantly accept the responsibility for crossing that line. Those who investigate his actions later can determine whether they were justified, but the moral person accepts that he or she may suffer for making that choice.

An example I have used before involves the former deputy police chief of Frankfurt, Germany, Wolfgang Daschner, who in September 2002 threatened to torture a kidnapper who had buried alive an 11-year-old boy. The suspect refused to say where the child, who was possibly still alive, was interred. By threatening the man, Daschner broke his department’s rules, and subsequently lost his job, but the kidnapper immediately revealed the information. The boy, sadly, was not reached in time.

I would not have punished Daschner. I respect his decision and would have done the same. I likewise respect the decision in 2002 to take whatever steps were necessary to pry information from Sheikh Muhammad and Zubaydah. An inquiry may reveal that their questioners were motivated primarily by a desire to inflict suffering and that they achieved nothing, but I doubt it. I believe they were urgently motivated to thwart attacks on al-Qaeda’s drawing boards, and probably did so. A complete independent investigation is the only way to find out.

Whatever we learn about the treatment of these two, the real error of the Bush administration was not the handful of times it used coercive interrogation, but the legal legerdemain practiced trying to “license it.

Those who argue that the abuse of military prisoners is a departure from U.S. practice have not studied history: Americans have tortured prisoners in every war we have fought. The departure was to officially authorize it. There is ample historical precedent for the consequences of this, all of which points in the same direction, toward more and graver abuse. Prisoners will always be mistreated; it is the responsibility of jailers to control it.

We don’t know all the facts yet, but the failure to control abuses at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other military prisons strikes me as the real horror here, not the interrogations of Sheikh Muhammed and Zubaydah.

Mark Bowden is a former staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer and is now national correspondent for the Atlantic. He wrote this for The Inquirer; e-mail:

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