Bob Herbert: Torturers Win

Stop complaining. Torture’s a good thing. It keeps us safe.

The Torturers Win
Published: February 20, 2006

Terrible things were done to Maher Arar, and his extreme suffering was set in motion by the United States government. With the awful facts of his case carefully documented, he tried to sue for damages. But last week a federal judge waved the facts aside and told Mr. Arar, in effect, to get lost.

We’re in a new world now and the all-powerful U.S. government apparently has free rein to ruin innocent lives without even a nod in the direction of due process or fair play. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen who, according to all evidence, has led an exemplary life, was seized and shackled by U.S. authorities at Kennedy Airport in 2002, and then shipped off to Syria, his native country, where he was held in a dungeon for the better part of a year. He was tormented physically and psychologically, and at times tortured.

The underground cell was tiny, about the size of a grave. According to court papers, “The cell was damp and cold, contained very little light and was infested with rats, which would enter the cell through a small aperture in the ceiling. Cats would urinate on Arar through the aperture, and sanitary facilities were nonexistent.”

Mr. Arar’s captors beat him savagely with an electrical cable. He was allowed to bathe in cold water once a week. He lost 40 pounds while in captivity.

This is a quintessential example of the reprehensible practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. government kidnaps individuals — presumably terror suspects — and sends them off to regimes that are skilled in the fine art of torture. In terms of vile behavior, rendition stands shoulder to shoulder with contract killing.

If the United States is going to torture people, we might as well do it ourselves. Outsourcing torture does not make it any more acceptable.

Mr. Arar’s case became a world-class embarrassment when even Syria’s torture professionals could elicit no evidence that he was in any way involved in terrorism. After 10 months, he was released. No charges were ever filed against him.

Mr. Arar is a 35-year-old software engineer who lives in Ottawa with his wife and their two young children. He’s never been in any kind of trouble. Commenting on the case in a local newspaper, a former Canadian official dryly observed that “accidents will happen” in the war on terror. The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York filed a lawsuit on Mr. Arar’s behalf, seeking damages from the U.S. government for his ordeal. The government said the case could not even be dealt with because the litigation would involve the revelation of state secrets.

In other words, it wouldn’t matter how hideously or egregiously Mr. Arar had been treated, or how illegally or disgustingly the government had behaved. The case would have to be dropped. Inquiries into this 21st-century Inquisition cannot be tolerated. Its activities must remain secret at all costs.

In a ruling that basically gave the green light to government barbarism, U.S. District Judge David Trager dismissed Mr. Arar’s lawsuit last Thursday. Judge Trager wrote in his opinion that “Arar’s claim that he faced a likelihood of torture in Syria is supported by U.S. State Department reports on Syria’s human rights practices.”

But in dismissing the suit, he said that the foreign policy and national security issues raised by the government were “compelling” and that such matters were the purview of the executive branch and Congress, not the courts.

He also said that “the need for secrecy can hardly be doubted.”

Under that reasoning, of course, the government could literally get away with murder. With its bad actions cloaked in court-sanctioned secrecy, no one would be the wiser.

As an example of the kind of foreign policy problems that might arise if Mr. Arar were given his day in court, Judge Trager wrote:

“One need not have much imagination to contemplate the negative effect on our relations with Canada if discovery were to proceed in this case and were it to turn out that certain high Canadian officials had, despite public denials, acquiesced in Arar’s removal to Syria.”

Oh yes, by all means, we need the federal courts to fully protect the right of public officials to lie to their constituents.

“It’s a shocking decision,” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It’s really saying that an individual who is sent overseas for the purpose of being tortured has no claim in a U.S. court.”

If kidnapping and torturing an innocent man is O.K., what’s not O.K.?

The Discussion: 31 Comments

9/11 changed everything. Since our enemies took advantage of our freedoms to destroy us, we can no longer afford our freedoms. We must become just like our enemies in order to destroy our enemies. Defeat in the war on terror is not an option.

I’ve lived just long enough to have heard this sort of talk several times.

February 20, 2006 @ 12:10 am | Comment

Mickey, I’d be willing (maybe) to at least listen seriously to such talk if there was an iota of evidence that the torture and brutality work. Unfortunately, there is none. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Many of our troubles in Iraq are based on our having brutalized so many people there. The more we torture, maim, kill and brutalize, the easier the Al Qaeda recruiters have it.

February 20, 2006 @ 12:46 am | Comment

I was just reading today in a late 2005 issue of Asia Inc that since we destroyed Iraq, piracy in the waters off Basra has appeared. 4 cases last year despite the coalition navy. Need I mention that there was no piracy under Hussein.

I don’t know how we can expiate these crimes. I don’t know what to do about Iraq. And contemplating the awful war we’re about to launch with Iran, and the impending collapse of the dollar….I’m in despair. How could I have awakened into the Belly of this State?


February 20, 2006 @ 3:23 am | Comment

Good question. The only thing you can do to keep your sanity is block it out. And buy gold;as the dollar falls, gold’s gotta keep on rising.

February 20, 2006 @ 6:24 am | Comment

If torture NEVER worked why is it still used?
As an avid reader of history you know that the Gestapo where very successful in using torture on the maquis, though not so successful on the more hard core commies. And the French used the water torture to some success in Algeria and Israel has been successful using torture and informants on their war on terror.
Is it something that we should be proud of?
OF COURSE NOT…but if it saves ONE American life isn’t it worth it?
On the other hand, recreational sadists need to be hung by their gonads..their depradations are only for their own amusement and reflect a sickness, a cult of violence…
That is torture without purpose…
By the way, the History Channel just ran a re-enactment of what happened on 9/11 based on transcripts/communcations from the aircraft that crashed into the WTC, chilling to say the least and it reminded me again of the enemy we face…

February 20, 2006 @ 7:51 am | Comment

I am appalled by this…and we call ourselves a civilized country? We have to be better than they are. The only way we can overcome our enemies is by showing a moral superiority, which we rarely do.

February 20, 2006 @ 8:53 am | Comment

Hey Richard, didn’t you notice?

The price of Gold *dropped* recently.

Values are off by something like $20 an ounce.

February 20, 2006 @ 10:40 am | Comment

IF my sarcasm meter is still accurate, Micky was using same to point out that he’s actually heard people advance that argument, absurd as it sounds.

“The enemy we face”? Yikes. Excuse me while I bar the doors against the Islamofascists who would force me into a burka.

Honestly, do people just need an enemy so they can invest some greater meaning into their free-floating existential angst? Do they need the illusion of some higher struggle against Evil so they don’t think overmuch about their own lives?

Religious extremism is a real problem. But torturing people is exactly the wrong way to go about dealing with it.

February 20, 2006 @ 11:55 am | Comment

Because, RMH, of people like you who rationalize its evil away.

February 20, 2006 @ 1:47 pm | Comment

RMH you also use faulty logic when putting forth the arguement that torture is worth it if it “saves ONE American life.” You cannot accurately measure the number of enemies created from an episode of torture that we perpetrate, and therefore cannot measure the number of American lives put in danger by the torture we perpetrate. Are we looking for a net number equalling zero? How do you get there?

You also need a definition for “success” when talking about torture. Gestapo, French and Israelis notwithstanding, all reputable studies on torture indicate that information obtained under duress is not helpful at best, and bogus at worst.

February 20, 2006 @ 2:01 pm | Comment

Other Lisa;
We don’t have enemies?
(other than Bush?)
I did not mean to imply that torture was the ONLY way to deal with terrorism
Even you said in another post in an answer to a question by me, that in CERTAIN circumstances torture is acceptable.

Shame on think you know me because of a few sentences? I express an unpopular point of view, especially on THIS blog and you make a moral judgement about me…???

Again, if torture doesn’t work why is it still used?
Success: Forgive logic maybe faulty
I would say that success in this context, would be getting timely and ACCURATE information as to the disposition of my enemy.
In the end, of course, Germany as well as France “lost”
Please, so that I may learn, can you point out a “study” that shows torture doesn’t work? I google and use wikipedia but the sources are so vast..
Also, one final note, evil and illogical as I maybe.
and I am not advocating its use but it has worked for regimes like Stalin, Mao, etc know the list. They use torture to glean information AND to instill terror on their own people and it worked for decades..
That’s a fact isn’t it Sam?

February 20, 2006 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

RMH, your ignorance is truly appalling. Most of Yezhov’s “confessions” derived by torture were bogus, and anyone who knows the history of Stalins Terror knows this. Many of those who “confessed” said before their deaths that not a word was true. The “confessions” were written by the state and were utterly worthless as an intelligence tool. We have not garnered any benefits from torture. Quite the opposite.

February 20, 2006 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

Gold has fallen recently, but the long-term outlook (for me) is very strong. Look at it from a 20-year perspective, you might be surprised at what you see.

February 20, 2006 @ 4:40 pm | Comment

“They use torture to glean information AND to instill terror”
Did you actually read that part of the post?
Is that not clear enough?
Of course they were confessions with no meaning ..they were used to justify purges. and to feed Stalins paranoia..
You mentioned awhile back that you were an avid reader of history? Isn’t it true that the Gestapo was succcesful in getting pertinant information from their captives?
Well, lets see I am now an evil, illogical, ignoramus..egads, next thing you will be calling me a liberal and then I really will be pissed….
There are some UNBIASED links with excellent information appropos of our discussion.

February 20, 2006 @ 4:54 pm | Comment

The economist has an excellent site for country by country information from politics to culture to economic prognostication.
They are concerned about the US and its enormous deficit but where to put one’s money?
If the US goes down a lot of countries will follow. Hard assets; like foodstuffs, medicine, anything that can be bartered is what would have value if the worst case happened. Its sounds very survivalist but it might be a prudent move in these uncertain times.

February 20, 2006 @ 5:01 pm | Comment

Yeah, I read your reply, and it’s the “glean information” I’m taking issue with. It doesn’t help glean information. That’s pure horseshit. Confessions made under torture are notoriously unreliable. It works splendidly on instilling terror. Is that what we went there for?

February 20, 2006 @ 5:06 pm | Comment

Was the gestapo successful or not in gleaning, uh, I mean acquiring reliable information or not?
Israel’s Shin Bet and Mossad have been successful in using torture. That and informants have enabled them to target Hamas, Hezzbollah and Islamic Jihad leaders, and until recently was actually legal.
And no , even though i know your question is rhetorical, we did not go to Iraq to torture but those folks constitute a small portion of Americans in Iraq…

February 20, 2006 @ 5:25 pm | Comment

I would say no, they were not very successful. I think your attitude is truly depraved. Nothing has so damaged America as our embrace of torture. You weigh the plusses and minuses. More Amwericans are being targeted now than ever, largely due to our policies of torture and brutalization.

Thanks for sharing, RMH. We’ve learned a lot about you. Now, please don’t argue anymore here about the joys of torture. Some things are off-limits, like advocating hatred/violence against the Chinese, Jews or other groups, and advocating or defending the use of torture. Go to LGF to do that. Thanks.

February 20, 2006 @ 5:34 pm | Comment

Per your polite request I will no longer post nor visit your blog. I truly regret upsetting you and that you think I am advocating torture. My intent was to bring forth another point of view on a very emotional issue on a blog that is full of syncophants with nary a voice of dissent and now I know why…name calling and judging someone on a few sad….
You think you know me because of a few paragraphs? I assure you, you do not…
I am a man of peace and have NEVER harmed anyone, nor would I do so.
Think ill of me as you will but in this regard you are totally misjudging my character….
May God/Allah bless you.
And may your sojurn in Taiwan bring you wealth, health and happiness.
Take care

February 20, 2006 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

RMH, some views are flatly unacceptable, like ethnic cleansing, racism and torture. I’ve politely disagreed with you for many, many months as you constantly take sides with Bush. This is the first and only time I’ve ever asked you to refrain from arguing – because, as I said, some things are non-negotiable. America cannot be a nation of torturers. Period. Lots and lots, and lots of people here argue with me all the time. To call them sycophants is highly misleading, but it’s in keeping with all your comments last year on Iraq, when you pulled the same trick. Your crack, “May God/Allah bless you” strengthens my long-held belief that you are a Moslem hater, someone who thinks torture is jim dandy as long asit’s being meted out on brown people who read the Koran. Take care.

February 20, 2006 @ 7:07 pm | Comment

I’m glad that Other Lisa figured out I was being sarcastic.

In defense of RMH, I believe torture is a tool which may be useful only in the case of “the ticking bomb”scenario. Unfortunately for the people who torture, “the ticking bomb” scenario is extremely rare. The people who use torture use it all the time…. so it doesn’t work in the few cases (i.e. “the ticking bomb”) when it really might be an effective tool.

Just because a lot of people have used it does not mean that it has generated enough information to make it worth keeping around.

Using torture on Arar, as Herbert chronicles, is a perfect example of why it should be used extremely sparingly, if at all.

(And are those who are against torture going to say that torture should not even be used in the case of “the ticking bomb?”)

February 20, 2006 @ 11:11 pm | Comment

Torture is and should be against the law. There might be times, very rare and critical times, when the law needs to be broken. But talking about such contrived situations as though they are the norm is a distraction from the real issue, i.e., the fact that torture has become an everday, institutionalized practice as seen in Iraq, Gitmo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Obviously when someone is holding the fate of the world in his hands, you do whatever you have to do to save the planet. But we’re practicing torture willy-nilly on people erroneously rounded up, innocent people, or maybe people who had a vague connection to a terrorist’s brother-in-law. That should never be permissible. That should never even be a possibility. Even in the contrived worst-case scenario, I’m not sure it’s justified, if only because it has so often proven utterly ineffective. I guess if we’ve tried everything else and the time-bomb is ticking on the destiny of mankind, you try and use whatever option you have. But only in the rarest of circumstances; in fact, in the history of the earth there has never been such a circumstance when torture might have saved the earth. At least none that I know of.

February 20, 2006 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

What Mickey and Richard said.

I think in one of the many posts I’ve written decrying torture I said, “okay, there may occasionally be a ‘ticking bomb scenario’ where torture might be justified.” And then I went on to say that such things happen way more often on “24” than they do in real life. And that certainly we should never, ever establish a legal framework that justifies torture, that defines torture down by excluding everything short of major organ failure as being “not torture.” And creating a system in which torture has been deliberately promoted, as the Bush Administration has done, is beyond the pale.

Do we have enemies? Sure, RHM, I never said that we didn’t. But the manner in which “Islamofascism” has been inflated to some kind of all-powerful menace bent on destroying our way of life is just absurd. And torturing Muslim and Arab men in American custody is, aside from being morally reprehensible, counterproductive in the extreme.

February 20, 2006 @ 11:38 pm | Comment

Check out this New Yorker article, the latest by Jane Mayer, about the outgoing General Counsel of the United States Navy, who tried to halt the abuse at Guantanamo.

February 21, 2006 @ 1:00 am | Comment

RMH, why don’t you effing go ask the French how well torture worked out for them. You might simply have to wait for people to stop setting their country on fire to pose the question.


February 22, 2006 @ 12:25 am | Comment

The ticking time bomb scenario? Bogus.

If I have planted a ticking time bomb, and somehow I am caught. All I have to do is, DUH, hold out long enough for the bomb to go off. And if I simply–again, DUH!–LIE to my captors, I can sit back and wait without a hand being laid on me.

Get this through your think skull: LIFE ISN’T 24!

February 22, 2006 @ 12:29 am | Comment

RMH has certainly been effective at stirring folks up, which is probably part of the fun for him. Perhaps I missed a nuance or two, but it seems people have got off in entirely the wrong direction here in responding to his comments.

For the sake of argument, take as a given that the Gestapo, the French in Algeria, and the Israelis have been able to extract some amount of useful information through torture. What was the eventual outcome for the first two? The Nazis were defeated and their leaders either committed suicide or were tried and executed, in part for torturing people. The French were violently ejected from Algeria, and there was an attempted military coup in France by French soldiers coming from Algeria.

What does this tell us we might expect for Israelis if they continues to use torture?

What might we expect for ourselves?

February 22, 2006 @ 8:04 am | Comment

thats the best argument against torture of all….
what will our fates be if we insist on torturing.

February 22, 2006 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

Should the US turn a suspect over to a country known to use torture or inhumane treatment? This has been done since the late 90s. Does this make us complicit in any torture?

I have not read a lot of RMH’s comments in other threads so I have little else to go on but what is here. I don’t think he is advocating nor condoning torture. He sounds to be trying to assess its value in gathering info. Its value can never be known. Torture is done in secret and the info derived is kept secret. It is just as easy to make the case that torture has prevented any attacks as it would be that it has caused attacks.

The question of why is it used if it is not successful is foolish. Heavy drinking has not been shown to be an especially successful method of dealing with life’s problems – but it is still used extensively.

No matter how you cut it, torture makes its users look like thugs and barbarians.

February 23, 2006 @ 1:49 pm | Comment

Quoting one of the posters…

“…but if it saves ONE American life isn’t it worth it?”

If breaking into houses and taking away all guns from every American saved one life, wouldn’t it be worth it? If dipping witchs found one evil person, wouldn’t it be worth it? If executing every one accused, not convicted, of murder saved one life, wouldn’t it be worth it? If reversing “innocent until proven guilty” to guilty first, no matter how impossible proving a negative is, saved one life, would it be worth it?

No, damn it, NO… it would NOT.

People who use such reasoning know it’s nonsense, but they use it anyway; expecting us to gobble it up like mindless pacmen. Sixty years ago they might have said the same if they had been in Germany right after Hitler’s first invasion, or while waiting in line behind a gypsy, the homeless and the Jews while claiming to believe that what they all were waiting for was “just a shower.”

Open your damn eyes, or at least stop demanding we close ours.

One can only hope those who propose such things be the first dragged off the streets and tortured to death if this becomes accepted “rule of law.” It’s not nice, but at least there will be the slight scent of justice amongst all the foul odors that will, and do, surround us.

February 23, 2006 @ 1:56 pm | Comment

Great points. The commenter who wrote that nonsense has a track record for justifying anything Bush does.

February 23, 2006 @ 4:00 pm | Comment

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