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Even if it works, U.S. shouldn't use torture

51 Comments
By Pierre Atlas

There are three aspects to the debate over torture, two empirical and one normative, or moral. Empirically, does torture work? Can accurate, worthwhile information be extracted through torture? This question is hotly debated, but many current and former military personnel -- including America's most famous POW, John McCain -- emphatically say no.

In 2005, Senator McCain sponsored an anti-torture amendment to the defense appropriations bill in the Senate. A victim of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, he put it this way: "Subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence, because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop." Some people in the intelligence community argue otherwise, and the debate on this point continues.

The second empirical question is: Has the United States in fact committed acts of torture against some al-Qaida suspects? Is the technique of waterboarding, which American personnel have performed numerous times, a form of torture? The following statement is a detailed description of waterboarding:

"A towel was fixed under the chin and down over the face. Then many buckets of water were poured into the towel so that the water gradually reached the mouth and rising further eventually also to the nostrils, which resulted in his becoming unconscious and collapsing like a person drowned. This procedure was sometimes repeated 5-6 times in succession."

The above passage is not a description from one of the controversial "torture memos" or from a Red Cross report on Guantanamo. Rather, it is from testimony given at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials held by the Allies after World War II. The victim was a prisoner in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies and the perpetrators were Japanese soldiers. It was deemed at the time that waterboarding was torture. The Japanese soldiers were convicted of war crimes.

This leads to the third, normative aspect of the torture debate. Even if torture does work under some circumstances and does elicit high-value information from suspected terrorists -- as former Vice President Dick Cheney argues happened at Guantanamo -- should its use nevertheless be prohibited because it is wrong?

According to international law, torture is never allowable, not even in an extreme emergency. The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment -- which was negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the U.S. Senate -- is clear on this. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

The Bush administration argued that the war on terror justified its use of extreme interrogation techniques. The two democracies that have faced the most terrorism within their own borders are Great Britain and Israel. The UK had to deal for decades with IRA attacks and more recently with Islamist terror cells. Israel has faced terrorist attacks on its civilians on-and-off for over 60 years. What do these countries have to say about torture? Rulings by their independent judiciaries are instructive.

Torture has long been illegal in Britain, even against terrorists. A few years ago, the Law Lords, Britain's highest court, went further and declared that any evidence obtained through torture in a foreign country, via "rendition," is inadmissible in British courts. As one of the Lords declared, "Statements obtained by torture are unacceptable. To rely on them is inconsistent with the notion of justice as administered by our courts."

In Israel in the late 1980s, the security services declared that mild forms of torture, what they called "moderate physical pressure," were permitted when it was believed that a detainee had knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack. This was known as the "ticking bomb scenario." But this changed with a landmark ruling by Israel's High Court of Justice in 1999. The court declared that torture techniques were illegal, even under extreme circumstances.

Ultimately, the "pro-torture" argument comes down to the assertion that "the ends justify the means." Cheney makes this argument with his demand that CIA documents demonstrating positive results from torture be declassified and released to the public.

Knowing to what extent waterboarding or other controversial techniques actually worked might be useful to the empirical debate over the utility of torture. But it adds little to the moral debate.

It is ironic that some prominent conservatives, who would normally assert that basic values are immutable, are arguing instead for situational ethics and moral relativism when it comes to torture. But no matter how hard one tries, one cannot credibly argue that, while waterboarding was a crime when committed by the Japanese in World War II, it is not a crime when committed by the United States in the 21st Century.

As Americans debate the merits of torture in an age of terrorism, the words of the Israeli high court from 1999 are worthy of consideration:

"This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual's liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and allow it to overcome its difficulties."

McCain too is quite eloquent on the question of the ethics and morality of torture: it's not about them, it's about us. "The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights," he said in 2005. "They don't deserve our sympathy. But this isn't about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away."

© RealClearPolitics.com

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

51 Comments
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I admit that in ordinary times and from the safety of our homes and offices, the use of torture seems barbaric. But then I put myself in the place of an interrogator. We have captured a suspect from a group that claims to have placed a nuclear device in XXX City and that it will go off tomorrow. Our suspect is part of the gang and knows where the device is. We have 24 hours to get that information. What do we do?

By the way, isn't good old-fashioned truth serum (sodium pentothal, I believe) used anymore? Or was that just a staple of old movies?

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In certain cases, surely torture is justified just like the death penalty. If you are caught red-handed participating in terrorist activities, then you should consider it part of the risk and not cry like a spoilt Westerner.

And if truth serum really worked, I bet law enforcement would use it all the time.

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I agree woth Pierre. The American should not use torture, it is a waste of time and not like the humans should do

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But no matter how hard one tries, one cannot credibly argue that, while waterboarding was a crime when committed by the Japanese in World War II, it is not a crime when committed by the United States in the 21st Century.

But on JT, many don't seem to mind that.

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I agree, the US should definitely not use torture. The US should outsource that activity.

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Damn right. If torture is necessary the West (the US) should just rendition folks off to places like Eygpt that have a lot more experience in such things. Think of it as giving a job to Uncle Hosni, instead of dirtying our hands, let people with more experience in such matters put their skills to good use!!!

On a more serious note, the West (hipocrisy aside) has always prided itself on democratic institutions and not engaging in barbaric torture of opponents (not matter how much your opinions diverge from those of others). To start going out and plugging people into the mains, etc. is paramount to conceeding that we (the West) have already lost the ideological battle to cave-dwelling babboons such as OBL and Elvis in Pyongyang.

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The US does not torture by definition. No matter what the US does, it cannot be called torture by definition.

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It is ironic that some prominent conservatives, who would normally assert that basic values are immutable, are arguing instead for situational ethics and moral relativism when it comes to torture. But no matter how hard one tries, one cannot credibly argue that, while waterboarding was a crime when committed by the Japanese in World War II, it is not a crime when committed by the United States in the 21st Century.

What is more ironic is when the "W" stated that we went to war in Iraq because we wanted to "spread Democracy" among other things, and many people decried this becuase our "spreading our morality of freedom" and thus saying that our ways are better than theirs. But funny, they are allowed to behead and shoot people and make them announce that they accept Islam before they are killed (just take a look at the British sailors who were captured by the Iranians and how they had to denounce their ways or the Koreans who were captured in Afg. and had to confess their conversion to Islam), but we if did something like throw a koran in the toilet we in the west are villified. That is irony.

So, we will come with the "high moral ground" and not do torture becuase we know better, but they get a pass because they are just people who are not as enlightened as we are in the west.

Beating people just for the fun of it with no reason is wrong. Trying to find out vital information that can save lives from an enemy is justified, in my opinion.

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Liberal nonsense.

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while waterboarding was a crime when committed by the Japanese in World War II, it is not a crime when committed by the United States in the 21st Century.

The standard seems to be, what they did then was bad; what we do now is justified.

they are allowed to behead and shoot people

No, they aren't 'allowed'. Getting away with it because you don't have the power to stop them is not the same as allowed as in we think it's hunky-dory. I don't think anyone in the West saying we shouldn't be torturing people is also saying it's OK for 'them' to behead people.

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while waterboarding was a crime when committed by the Japanese in World War II, it is not a crime when committed by the United States in the 21st Century.

LOL. Yeah, because the worst thing to happen to Allied soldiers in places like the Phillipines or Thailand was they'd get a little water poured over their faces.

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If you think waterboarding is torture, you're a moron. Consider this; would you allow yourself to be waterboardedfor $5,000? Now think about this; would you allow some crazy to smash your fingers with a hammer for the same $5,000?

Now you know what torture REALLY is. It isn't something reporters will volunteer to undergo, just for the experience.

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This leads to the third, normative aspect of the torture debate. Even if torture does work under some circumstances and does elicit high-value information from suspected terrorists—as former Vice President Dick Cheney argues happened at Guantanamo—should its use nevertheless be prohibited because it is wrong?

The logic used by former Vice President Dick Cheney is very dangerous - if torture gets info, then where does it stop behind closed doors? If the "rack" can elicit more info, should it be used? How about repeatedly hitting someone w/ an ELF transmitter at point blank range? Where does it stop if any info can be obtained valid or not? The US has various wireless transmitters, so why use torture?

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I'm not sure the Brits were all that lily-white where the IRA were concerned.

Detainees thought likely to have important information were physically weakened through sleep deprivation and a bread and water diet. They were then spread-eagled for hours against a wall with hoods over their heads and subjected to disorientating electronic white noise. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4301952.stm

In those days they called it 'interrogation-in-depth', today it's 'enhanced interrogation methods'. Lipstick on a pig.

Consider this; would you allow yourself to be waterboardedfor $5,000?

Consider this - “A towel was fixed under the chin and down over the face. Then many buckets of water were poured into the towel so that the water gradually reached the mouth and rising further eventually also to the nostrils, which resulted in his becoming unconscious and collapsing like a person drowned. This procedure was sometimes repeated 5-6 times in succession.” For $5,000? Hell No.

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cleo: It is illegal, unlike what has happended lately in America. It doesn'T happen now and many Americans think much more extrem measures are ok.

America was subjected to one attack, yes one attack only and they think like, they can torture worldwide. We sufferd for 25 years under US sponsored IRA terror and condone torture and it are illegal. I am a litle surpised and dissapointed in your response, perhaps your stay away from Blighty are too lonbg to know the REAL facts. Cleo chheck BRitains record against America and your beloved Japan and see who has the cleanest hands in law enforcement and anti terror interrogartions. Britain wins hands down every single time, and no barbaric death penalty either like.

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Alf,

see who has the cleanest hands in law enforcement and anti terror interrogartions.

See, even you talk in terms of comparison; none of them have really squeaky-clean hands. I agree with you that the US response was over the top and the opinions expressed by some American posters here are so far gone, if they aren't parodying themselves they're really, really scary.

Your exhortation to 'chheck BRitains record against America' is an exact parallel to the 'but Bush isn't (wasn't) as bad as Saddam' chorus some people like to sing. I expect Britain to do a lot better than that.

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DS: Consider this; would you allow yourself to be waterboardedfor $5,000?

Consenting to waterboarding by people you trust and getting money at the end is a COMPLETELY different ball game to not knowing what the heck is going on and who the heck is waterboarding you or when they will stop or if you will be allowed to live. Its hard to put up the psychological barriers to endure. People consent to torture all the time. Pick up an S&M film. You will find out. But strangers grabbing people off the street and doing that changes the whole picture.

Anyway, torture does not work. So its moot. The only way to verify what is said under torture is by doing a proper investigation. If you did the investigation, you did not need to torture. If you torture to get information to conduct that investigation, then you are stupid, lazy, a sadist, or all three. In fact, if you are doing it because you are lazy, then you are also stupid, because you will chasing up a lot false and wild information a proper investigation never would have turned up. May as well rely on your dreams at night, because what is said under torture can be pure fantasy. Or it might be the truth. You won't know which is which. Its a waste of time, unless of course, you are a sadist.

But stupid, lazy and/or sadist people are not the people I want involved in my national security anyway.

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"...For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you..."

Matthew 7:2

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Peter Hitchens was waterboarded. He didn´t like it, but he did it as a journalistic experience. So did a reporter from Rolling Stones Magazine, whose name I don´t recall.

Obviously, neither of them would want to try out one of Saddams or Al Quaida torture methods; the iron maidens, the meat hooks, the glowing needle in the eyes and all that.

And I bet even the holier-than-though pontificators here would understand immediately difference between real torture and this politically correct non-issue, if they were given the choice.

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Anyway, torture does not work. So its moot.

Umm, actually it usually does work. There are 2 basic problems with torture. The primary one is of course ethical. The other one, is being able to tell what is true and what isn't. Because if someone is truly being tortured, not merely waterboarded, but actually being tortured, they will eventually say anything to get the pain to stop. Being able to discern which statements are true and which are merely an attempt to get the pain to stop is the issue.

Having said this, I disagree with the premise, that even if it works it shouldn't be used. Call me crazy, but if there is someone who knows of an imminent plot to say crash a plane into a big building, and we know he knows, the when, the where etc, I would say go ahead and torture the bastard til he squeals. If you are against it, perhaps you should be willing to put your wife and kids in that same building to die. Because thats really what we're talking about. How many people should be allowed to perish to preserve one terrorist from any kind of harsh treatment? Would you be willing to go and tell the victims families that you could have saved them, if you were willing to waterboard a prisoner?

I don't lightly condone the use of any methods of torture, physical or psychological. But when I ask myself that question, what would I do, if it was my wife, or my kids who would die, I'll tell you now, I wouldn't hesitate, I would use the physical tortures, the hot irons, the iron maidens etc.

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molenir has been watched too many movies. why everything has to be like bad seagal movie? if this, if that... CIA will tell you they have almost never got can use information from torture. look it up on the google. give it all ifs but is still useless, it had no proved use. if your wife and kids on a plane, if if if. still useless. maybe need seagal, he can do it

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Yes, torture is bad. It's much better to have many people killed, than to have a few people uncomfortable.

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If torture is so useful and works so well, how come it is illegal for our police to use it?

There are, on average, approximately 500 gang-related deaths yearly in Los Angeles County alone. If the LAPD were allowed to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" on high school students they think may be in a gang, wouldn't they, in fact, save lives?

I'm just curious and would like to ask the people here who claim that torture is OK because it works and that the bottom line is all that counts; do you support amending police brutality laws to allow the police to use perhaps not torture, but "enhanced interrogation techniques" on American high school students in order to gain gangland intelligence?

Taka

Taka

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How many people should be allowed to perish to preserve one terrorist from any kind of harsh treatment?

Opposition to torture isn't about preserving terrorists from any kind of harsh treatment, and more than opposition to the death penalty is about saving the miserable lives of serial killers. It's about what we are, not what they are.

Taka makes a good point - maybe America should torture all gun-owners on a regular basis, to find the ones who are intending to shoot up schools and shopping malls. Surely law-abiding, responsible gun-owners would readily submit to this for the public good.

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DS,

I have to say, I disagree with your argument and believe it is a straw man.

If someone agrees to be waterboarded for money, there's going to be an implied understanding that the waterboardee will survive in order to enjoy the money. Therefore, it's not torture. It's taking the elementary schoolyard, "I'll eat this worm for a dollar" to the major leagues.

If someone agrees to have their hand mangled for money, it's the same thing, taken the Nth degree. But, it's still not torture if there's a written or implied understanding that you are not losing 100% control of the situation.

Anyone being held against their will does not have that understanding. That makes for a WORLD of difference.

If memory serves, you are, or were in the Navy (forgive me if I am wrong). If not, please allow me this analogy:

When U.S. Sailors cross the equator, they go through a ceremony in which they are "cleansed" of their slime and transformed from slimy pollywogs into the beautiful and graceful Shellback of nautical legend. Now, the ceremony is pretty tame. 15 years ago, when I crossed the line...it was a LOT different (all U.S. Navy folk can attest to this).

I had scalding hot pancake batter poured over my head, eggs shoved down my pants and then broken so that I had egg shells digging into my butt cheeks for hours. I had hot sauce poured over my head with the idea that it WOULD get into my eyes eventually.

At face value, one would think that was the worst day of my life. However, I, along with the majority of us wogs, laughed ourselves horse (not during the garbage chute or shillelagh gauntlet however). We volunteered for it. We knew there was a REWARD waiting for us at the end. And, we knew it would end. It was even in the Plan of the Day.

I hope you understand why I believe that a sense of control can drastically change someone's reaction to a situation.

Imagine Wog Day happening to you, just out of the blue. No Navy. No ship. No knowledge or understanding of what is happening to you. Just whiskey-tango-foxtrot. Man, I can't even imagine how scared I would be.

Taka

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Not only should torture never be used against our enemies, but we should never kill or injure our enemies - after all, killing or injuring our enemies merely creates more enemies. We must try harder to understand our enemies and why they hate us.

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"I had scalding hot pancake batter poured over my head, eggs shoved down my pants and then broken so that I had egg shells digging into my butt cheeks for hours"

I'll bet if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been subjected to such torture, he would have told us about every bad thing he'd ever done!

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If the US wants to be the 'good guy' when it fights countries like Afghanistan, it has to be morally superior and be able to clearly differentiate itself. Getting rid of torture is a good place to start.

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If torture didn't work they would need to call it something else. USA torture is mostly financial right now anyway = We torture others thru the American dollar and Japan tortures thru limited trade. But if you join in the free trade agreements and allow the currency to float that's when the financial terrorism begins (Mexico, World Bank debtors etc)

Physical torture is kind of dated and less effective than economic torture.

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If "torture" (which never resulted in permanent organ damage) doesn't work why has Obama released top secret details about the exact methods used along with more photos of prisoner abuse from Iraq and Afghanistan, but not the specific memos that Cheney and military intelligence report contain accounts of the successes that enhanced interrogation sessions had?

Who is this pious fraud in the White House?

Where do his loyalties really lie?

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If torture is so useful and works so well, how come it is illegal for our police to use it?

There are, on average, approximately 500 gang-related deaths yearly in Los Angeles County alone. If the LAPD were allowed to use "enhanced interrogation techniques" on high school students they think may be in a gang, wouldn't they, in fact, save lives?

What a lame and pointless comparison.

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Molenir: Umm, actually it usually does work. There are 2 basic problems with torture. The primary one is of course ethical. The other one, is being able to tell what is true and what isn't.

And since you cannot really tell, particually given the fact that often the torturee does not know the answers anyway, we have the shorthand: IT DOESN'T WORK.

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Again, you miss the point. It does work. It compells the person being questioned to answer, rather then remain silent, thus gaining answers to questions being asked. And since what the interrogator wants is answers to questions, the fact is that it succeeds. However that is where someone who is skilled in interrogation techniques comes in. If someone has been well trained, they can spot the small queues that can almost always enable you to tell if someone is in fact telling the truth or not.

The larger question however is one of ethics. Ethically we don't want to be seen as the bad guys. We don't want to be thought of as the thugs torturing helpless prisoners, regardless of what they've done or plan to do. I would normally agree with this policy, regardless of how effective we know it is. However when you know someone has knowledge of something, and that its time sensitive and lives are at stake, personally I would err on the side of torture. Its better that one person suffer a bit of impermanent fear or pain, then that lives be lost. Feel free to disagree.

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This thread shows many posters looking at torture on a specific high value target. However, the actual case is a much larger issue. We are discussing "state sponsored/organized torture", like Gitmo. This is very different to looking at getting info out of a person. Just like Gitmo, historically, the torturers go through hundreds of partially connected individuals to get a bona fide lead - fishing is a good adjective. Also, in a conflict, having a buddy mutilated/tortured is VERY different than having him shot dead - the level of emotions skyrocket. Conflicts take on a VERY different tone. It is worst when the two sides start to escalate the brutality for vengeance. Shooting someone dead in a conflict is within the construct of "honor, duty and country". Torture is a very different beast.

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If torture really worked, the US would have captured or killed bin Ladin by the end of 2002 at the latest.

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They could have had Bin Laden in Feb 1996 and many times upto 1998. Sudan wanted to give him away since he was a problem. Clinton said no.

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"...The road to Hell is paved with good intentions..."

Samuel Johnson

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This is a ridiculous debate. It was considered torture when done to Americans in WWII and all of a sudden it's okay? If the democratic nations of the developed west cede the moral high ground to those that seek to do it harm, then it renders all of the lofty talk of "democracy" and "civility" null and void, and plays into the hands of the propagandists on the other side. I also find it amusing that Sean Hannity and all of the other conservative blowhards are trying to characterize waterboarding as nothing more than just a "little water in the face". And yet, Senator McCain, a man who has actually been tortured is dead set against it. I thought that the era of the chicken hawk conservatives had passed with the election last November. Apparently not yet.

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What a lame and pointless comparison.

Just because it works against you does not make it lame, nor pointless.

Offering no explanation as to why it's OK for the CIA to torture in order to save American lives but not OK for the LAPD to do the same to quell gang killing on the other hand....

Or, in other words, one should not throw words like "lame" and "pointless" while relying on sarge's SOP for debate tactics.

Taka

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Correct me if wrong, but I do believe the Defense Department and the CIA can now operate in the Continental US - it was in the papers a few years ago. Thus, these issues on torture can be relevant to US Citizens - I was being bombarded w/ wireless transmitters up to and until late fall 2008. The transmitters are not used by local authorities, but rather used overseas during the Cold War - High Tech. They may be trying to preserve the appearance of civil liberties.

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If tortue saves US lives, then i guess it is fine by me.

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There are times I feel I am the poor man's version of Gene Hackman in the movie, "Enemy of the State".

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If tortue saves US lives, then i guess it is fine by me.

Even if it strongly motivates terrorists to kill more US soldiers?

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What makes me laugh, is comparing what the US did with waterboarding and gitmo, and that prison over in Iraq, to actual torture. I've known people who were tortured. I worked with a guy who was refugee from Eithiopia, and saw his burns from where he really was tortured. Or watching that video coming out of the UAE. Now thats torture. This stuff where they scare you, that to me isn't torture. They're not really inflicting pain on you, just scaring people into revealing details. I said it before, but I'm ok with the CIA using scare tactics on terrorists. Really. Actual real torture, no.

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Gitmo was torture?!?

Since when was getting 3 halal meals a day, free dental work, and your own copy of the Koran (handled with gloves by your infidel jailers) considered torture?

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From the grapevine, there is more to what happened than what has been released to the public. Also, what has been released to the public about Gitmo is relatively tame, but it is what happens when conflicts take a turn for the worst is when places like Gitmo changes.

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They could have had Bin Laden in Feb 1996 and many times upto 1998. Sudan wanted to give him away since he was a problem. Clinton said no.

Sudan: "Mr Clinton, we'd like you to have this terrorist and murderer of your citizens."

Clinton: "No thanks, we'd rather burn the flag."

Pretty good trolling there, Badsey!

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Ok, simple question. If torture accomplishes anything of positive value, please give us three real world examples of when it did so. You have all of history to comb at your leisure. Good luck.

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Offering no explanation as to why it's OK for the CIA to torture in order to save American lives but not OK for the LAPD to do the same to quell gang killing on the other hand....

Why the LA gangs example? Why the need to demonize blacks and hispanics?

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In a democracy if the authorities use torture they will lose the trust of the citizenry. Its a corrosive process, after all, if the authorities are happy to stretch the rules of decency for their foreign enemies, how long before they misbehave when dealing with their home grown ones?

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That's my boy.

Not only does he not have an argument, his excuse for one is nothing but a straw man that points out his lack of an argument and poorly hidden racist nature.

Why the need to point out that blacks and hispanics join gangs while not mentioning whites or Asians?

Taka

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