Victor Davis Hanson: The Truth about Torture

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently proposed an amendment to a defense appropriations bill in an attempt to plug loopholes in already existing anti-torture laws. The amendment, which President Bush opposes, is a good idea for America — but not necessarily for the reasons cited by most critics of the administration.

Contrary to popular belief, throughout history torture has brought results — either to gain critical, sometimes lifesaving intelligence or more gratuitously to obtain embarrassing confessions from terrified captives.

The question, then, for a liberal democracy is not whether torture in certain cases is effective, but whether its value is worth the negative publicity and demoralizing effect on a consensual society that believes its cause and methods must enjoy a moral high ground far above the enemy's.

Nor can opponents of torture say that it is entirely foreign to the U.S. military experience, at least from what we know of it even in so-called good wars like World War II. There were American soldiers — sometimes in furor over the loss of comrades, sometimes to obtain critical information — who executed or tortured captured Japanese and German prisoners. Those who did so operated on a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" understanding, occasionally found it effective and were rarely punished by commanding officers. Even so, G.I.s never descended to the levels of depravity common in the Wehrmacht or the Soviet and Imperial Japanese armies.

There is also not much to the argument that our employment of torture will only embolden the enemy to barbarously treat Americans held captive. What a silly idea! Captured Americans have already been filmed being beheaded — or shot or burned — and their mutilated corpses hung up for public ridicule.

We know from both its professed creed and its conduct in the field that al-Qaida cares nothing for civilized behavior. Its barbarism is innate, not predicated on any notion of reciprocity. Beheading and torturing prisoners occurred before the sexual humiliation so amply photographed at Abu Ghraib. U.S. soldiers already grasp what surrendering to al-Qaeda terrorists would mean; they've seen other Westerners appearing hooded and in jumpsuits on the Internet before losing their heads to choruses of "Allah Akhbar."...

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