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[b]Sunday, May. 09, 2004 1:50 PM EDT
9/11 Flashback: When Libs Backed Torture [/b]
In the months after Sept. 11, when the shock of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history still angered most Americans, even the most vigorous civil libertarians were in favor getting tough with detainees in the war on terrorism - even to the point of actually recommending torture.
It's a measure of how much the outrage of that dark day has faded that a handful of demeaning photos of detained Iraqi terrorist suspects has sent the nation into a convulsion of handwringing and recrimination.
Things were different when America still realized it was under attack from its enemies at home and abroad.
Leading civil libertarian, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, actually argued that the torture of terrorist suspects was legal under the U.S. Constitution, and should be employed when a suspect refused to divulge information about potentially deadly terrorist plots.
"Is it justified to resort to unconventional techniques such as truth serum, moderate physical pressure and outright torture?" Dershowitz asked in a Nov. 8, 2001 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece.
"The constitutional answer to this question may surprise people who are not familiar with the current U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination," he wrote.
"Any interrogation technique, including the use of truth serum or even torture, is not prohibited," the noted civil libertarian insisted.
Dershowitz explained that while evidence obtained through torture could not be used in a criminal prosecution, it "could be used against that suspect in a non-criminal case - such as a deportation hearing - or against someone else."
Since there was no Constitutional ban against torture, he argued that the U.S. courts could issue torture warrants in cases where terrorist suspects refused to talk.
"What if [torture was] limited to the rare 'ticking bomb' case - the situation in which a captured terrorist who knows of an imminent large-scale threat refuses to disclose it?" posited Dershowitz.
"Would torturing one guilty terrorist to prevent the deaths of a thousand innocent civilians shock the conscience of all decent people?"
With the wreckage of Ground Zero still smoldering, few if any Americans, he said, would object.
Likewise, Newsweek mega-liberal Jonathan Alter argued that it was time to take the gloves off with enemy detainees.
"It's a new world, and survival may well require old techniques that seemed out of the question," he wrote the same week Dershowitz spoke out. "In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture."
"Couldn't we at least subject [al Qaeda suspects] to psychological torture?" Alter wondered plaintively. "How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings?"
"Some torture clearly works," he noted. "Jordan broke the most notorious terrorist of the 1980s, Abu Nidal, by threatening his family. Philippine police reportedly helped crack the 1993 World Trade Center bombings [plus a plot to crash 11 U.S. airliners and kill the pope] by convincing a suspect that they were about to turn him over to the Israelis.
"Then there's painful Islamic justice," the Newsweek writer added, "which has the added benefit of greater acceptance among Muslims."
"Some people still argue that we needn't rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement," Alter said. "But they're hopelessly 'Sept. 10' - living in a country that no longer exists."
On that last point Alter was clearly wrong - at least about his media colleagues. If their hysteria over the so-called Iraqi prison abuse scandal proved nothing else this week, it's that they have very much returned to the America of Sept. 10.