Two different speeches on torture

Two speeches that an honourable President might have made on torture.

I’ve tried my hand at two drafts for speeches that an honourable man might have made last week, instead of the one George Bush actually made. The first is of course unrealistic on several grounds. (Update) I have left in some editing changes by a clone of Karl Rove to protect the sensibilities of Red voters.(/update)

My fellow Americans:

Three years ago, in the spring of 2003, a man called Khalid Shaikh Mohammed fell into the hands of the Pakistan intelligence service, who handed him over to the CIA. We believed him then, and know him now, to have been a key deputy to Osama bin Laden, a very dangerous master terrorist in his own right. He was in fact the principal planner of 9/11. Even more important, he was almost certainly privy to other evil plans for further terrorist attacks on the United States. He was interrogated according to the rules of the Geneva Conventions, but said nothing. At that point a dreadful dilemma arose. The only way to get the life-saving information from him was by breaking the rules, in fact to subject him to torture.

No American president since Lincoln (No! KR) has faced such a terrible choice. Believe me when I say that I had rather been asked to give up my life in combat for my country than take that decision. The torture of prisoners is illegal under our laws which I have sworn to uphold, and those of all civilised countries. Worse, it is a profound violation of the values of our Constitution and of American society. But in the head of this evil man lay details of networks, agents and plans aimed like a dagger at the heart of America. Carried out, they would have brought a repetition of the death, maiming and grief that struck us five years ago on an unparalleled scale in our history, and that we remember still in pain and grief today.

Continues below the fold as two alternative drafts.

Draft A.

I could not endure that prospect, not on my watch. My highest duty, as I saw it, was not to the laws, still less my own honour, but to the safety of the American people I hold in trust. So, as King James I did to Guy Fawkes (No! KR), I ordered it done.

The interrogation lasted several days (weeks? KR), then ceased. We secured the information we needed and it allowed us to foil more than one serious plot. There was no repetition. Nothing less than a grave imminent threat to our country, a “clear and present danger”, and the expectation of preventing it by unlocking the exceptional knowledge of a master planner could have led me to order what I did. We have not set up a secret program of torture, nor trained a cadre of torturers.

The buck stopped with me. It was my responsibility alone, as your President. Nobody who refused to carry out the order was sanctioned in any way; to those who accepted it I have issued sealed presidential pardons. I ask their forgiveness.

You, my fellow citizens must now decide what is become of me. What I did was, as I have said, a crime under our laws. I may be prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison for a long term. The decision will formally lie with my successor and the Congress; but in practice it lies with you, the American people. This is not a matter of fine points of evidence or law, but whether the public interest is served by prosecuting my crime. Consider it well. But as you do, look at the faces of your sleeping children in their beds, at those of your neighbors and colleagues at work, and think how they might have died. Then look at yourselves in the mirror and ask: would I have acted differently?

I throw myself upon your judgment and your mercy*.

Draft B.

I thought long and hard, but in the end did not order it done. We continue to interrogate captured terrorist suspects energetically but lawfully, and will bring them to trial when we can. We get substantial intelligence this way, which – combined with information from other sources – has allowed us to foil several plots. By the grace of God, there has not been another 9/11, but the risk is somewhat higher than had I ordered torture.

There were good practical reasons behind my decision.

One, Intelligence obtained by brutality is notoriously unreliable. Victims invent stuff, and implicate innocent third parties, who in tum make false confessions; interrogators are overwhelmed with noise.

Two, this intelligence cannot be used later in the courts of law to which we will bring our enemies, to show them to the world as the common criminals they are. In effect, the tortured prisoner eventually goes free or dies as a martyr.

Three, while mass murder by terrorism is uniquely horrible, it remains a remote risk for ordinary Americans compared to the other hazards of life, or even of common crime. We must not give a handful of repulsive and contemptible enemies the victory of giving in to a terrorism psychosis, making them bigger and more frightening than they really are.

Four, torture is a crime under our laws. Leaving aside my own liability, what right had I to ask dedicated servants of our country to break the law and risk long terms in prison?

Last, and most important, the struggle we are engaged in may be long, and we must think strategically. Our aim is nothing less than total victory. We must and will wipe el-Qaeda off the map. In themselves, they are only a tiny sect of fanatics. The problem is that part of their message message resonates with many — not most, but many – ordinary Muslims worldwide, and generates their funding, recruits, and cover to operate. Our strategy is twofold: to go after the terrorists directly as hard as we can, and also that of the anaconda (No! KR) containment, of isolating the fanatics from their wider support networks till they asphyxiate. The main battlefield is in fact the hearts of minds of ordinary Muslims worldwide.

The part of the fanatics’ message that appeals is not the aim to recreate a vast Muslim Caliphate ruled by the most reactionary mediaeval interpretation of Islamic law. Most Muslims everywhere share our view that this is a mere fantasy. What is superficially attractive is the critique of American policy in the Middle East, which they say is biased against Muslims, and of our values, which they say are hedonistic and hypocritical.

We will not change our support of Israel, as we also pursue a just and durable settlement with the Palestinians, and the sharing of the whole Muslim world in peace and prosperity. Nor will we change our values. What we can and must do is take them seriously; to show that we are not fearful and decadent, but that we too will soberly face dangers and make sacrifices in defence of our liberty and rights, which we hold to be the birthright of all human beings. Trading our values for short-term safety will only give comfort to our enemies, fuel resentments, and dry up intelligence. It will not, on balance, help us win.

In short, I reasoned that we must accept calculated risks now to secure our final victory. Refusing to torture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was one such risk, a grave one, and I took it.

In doing this, I fully realised that such risks are not abstract things. For the first time since the Civil War (? KR), the dangers of war have struck at ordinary citizens in our homeland, and may do more than once again before our victory. The risks I have undertaken may, for a very few among you, mean the lives of yourselves and those you love. By what right can I ask you to pay this atrocious price?

The answer is simple. I am not a king, and my highest duty is not to your safety. America is the most exciting and rewarding country in the world to live in, but not the safest. This choice is deeply rooted in our history. The Constitution I have sworn to uphold is not, as has been famously observed, a suicide pact, and allows — requires – a muscular defence of the Republic. As you know, we are striking back wherever we can, and hard. Bur neither is the Constitution a compact for security and a quiet life at all costs. The men who signed our Declaration of Independence were risking their own lives to the hangman’s noose for treason, and the lives of their families and fellow-Americans to the hazards of revolutionary war. Thousands died in the ensuing war for our independence and freedom, including civilians. It was not empty rhetoric but real courage when Alexander Hamilton, to take just one example, said, “A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one.” Before the end of the Cold War, President Reagan (update) echoed Hamilton reminded us of the great words of Patrick Henry ( /update): “You and I do not believe that ‘life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery.’ ” No-one now can put us back in chains but we ourselves.

The option to torture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other prisoners was a terrible and seductive temptation. It would have been a betrayal of our founding credo, the heart and essence of our nation; and this is what I am paid to defend, come what may. If you want a President who does not share this conviction, elect one. If you can find such an American.


* Footnote to A: if it sounds Churchillian it’s because it’s lifted from Churchill’s actual speech on VE day:

A terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.

But then he was a mensch.

(Update) The reason KR (Karl Rove) would strike out anacondas is here.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “Two different speeches on torture”

  1. While Bush is celebrating what turned into the 9/11 festival, many of his opponents celebrate an orgy of holier than thou.
    Torture is a crime. Killing 3000 people is a crime. A suicide bomber commits a crime. As bad as torture is, there are worse crimes. Absolutism is good for religions, but human being don't have that luxury or duplicity.
    Torture is a continuum, at the extreme high it is terrible; slapping one over the face is considered torture, but akin to driving above the speed limit.
    I wish we stop being sanctimonious and deal with torture in more realistic terms. It will have one huge contribution: instead of a white and black issue, torture will become something other than water boarding or nothing.

  2. "Torture is a continuum, at the extreme high it is terrible; slapping one over the face is considered torture, but akin to driving above the speed limit."
    Um, no, in fact; we call it "battery". Depending on the jurisdiction and the facts, premeditated battery can be a rather serious felony. As mens rea is already satisfied, assault and battery are basically both no brainers. If it goes beyond a slap, you're getting close to aggravated battery or in some jurisdictions, mayhem. There are many other statutory crimes one can be charged with, too.
    Those who wish to define torture down need to look seriously at what they're suggesting.
    "As bad as torture is, there are worse crimes."
    I do disagree. Torture is the assertion that others are less than human, and are simply things to be manipulated without regard to any sense of morality outside of whatever you think is correct. It is also mostly unreliable.
    Again, those who wish to define torture as acceptable, or attempt to minimize the evil, need to seriously think about what kind of world they wish to live in. A really good place to start is to ask if you'd consider if just to be subject to the system of "discovery" if you were mistaken for, for instance, a terrorist.

  3. Of course there are worse crimes than torture. So what? Pick any crime you want, and someone can name a crime that's arguably worse. But that doesn't give the top law enforcement official in the country a pass for conspiring to commit serious crimes in the unverifiable belief that some other crime(s) might thereby be prevented. That way lies of covernment of criminals, not of laws.

  4. "Torture is a continuum, at the extreme high it is terrible; slapping one over the face is considered torture, but akin to driving above the speed limit."
    No, it isn't. For an explanation why, follow this link and go to page 22:

  5. If you capture Mohammad Atta before 9/11 and can accept his silence, you are a better person than most. Alternatively, you could care less about 3000 people as long as you moral stance is pure.

  6. Deciding on whether to use torture is a pretty simple decision: the question is whether you are more committed to saving the lives of your fellow citizens than you are about the well-being of the suspect.
    I understand your sentiments… it's just that I would rather order 'extreme interrogation' to be used than have to go before the families of the victims of the attacks that could have been prevented and explain to them why I didn't use every tool at my disposal to keep that from happening. Have you told your loved ones that you'd rather see them dead than have Bush order the torture of a terrorist believed to have information that could prevent the attack that would kill them? If so, I would bet you're quite popular at family gatherings, right?
    And, your point that refraining from using torture helps us in the long run is as flawed as your (collective) arguments about our presence in Iraq making America less safe… the terrorists were attacking us long before Bush sent troops into Iraq and they were attacking us long before any reports of torture surfaced. And if we didn't torture, they'd simply pick some other reason to attack us…
    Other than that, I see nothing wrong with your post…

  7. shmuel: "If you capture Mohammad Atta before 9/11 and can accept his silence, you are a better person than most." If you captured Atta on 10 September 2001, you would not not know what his plans were. If you did, you could frustrate them without torture. Is your suggestion to subject all captured suspected terrorists to torture immediately, on the off chance that thay have set in motion some unknown plan for mass murder tomorrow? Not doing so isn't particularly virtuous but basic rationality.
    Most "ticking bomb" justifications of torture are based on situations that don't arise. For two real situations that approximated it, see my old comment here:
    Paul Teitgen was I think indeed a better man than you, or me.
    For the sake of my exercise, I had to assume the truth of Bush's factual assertions about KSM, which are no more than plausible, since we already know he made false ones about Zubaydah. For more on this, see… presented as a "balanced" he said/he said story, when the only real story is the allegations from FBI sources. The CIA denials are routine.

  8. Steve, the amount of dumb assumptions in your post is amazing.
    1. torture works
    I don't know why you think torture works better than other interrogation techniques.
    2. the people we interrogate are terrorists
    Under current policy the president can pull a U.S. citizen off the street and hold them indefinitely as a terrorist suspect. Also, no detainee in our secret prisons or Guantanamo has ever been tried, let alone convicted of anything related to terrorism.
    3. when we interrogate a suspect, we already know that he knows the information we want
    that's just dumb. this is often the assumption made with the ticking bomb scenario. While this might happen in a few cases, I don't see this happening in even a decent percentage of them.

  9. Miker: what's dumb is reading things into my comment that aren't there. I never said torture 'works', nor did I say that we know a suspect has information we want. Torture is simply (yes, simply) a weapon to be used if and when appropriate… just like artillery and rifles and nuclear weapons… and failing to use it when it is called for means sentencing some number of Americans to death. Who (other than me, I presume) are you willing to see die in order to keep your conscience clean? Your parents, your spouse, your kids, your next door neighbors, your colleagues at work? Who is expendable to you?

  10. torturing hundreds of people and killing tens of thousands in Iraq is not as bad as killing 3000 in america.
    Who Would Jesus Torture?
    How many innocents did Jesus say it was OK to kill to pertect yerself?

  11. steve, you would torture people even if it didn't work? what kind of fucking tool is that? are you an american or some piece of shit that would agree with al qaeda if they were your next door neighbors?
    and dano i was imitating steve with that comment

  12. But torture is not a weapon like rifles or nuclear warheads. It is a moral choice, not unlike the decision of whether to go to war, or whether to eliminate "inferior beings". It is, in fact, nothing less than the decision of whether others are, in fact, human. We should not torture because of concern for what the victims are, but because of concern for what we become.

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