Terrorism, Torture and Individual Rights

by oracleofreason

I went to see the movie Zero Dark Thirty today. It is a great film that depicts the CIA’s efforts to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden. Interestingly enough, because of how torture is used in the film it has ignited some controversy. According to the Los Angeles Times, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers criticized the film as grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Bin Laden. Torture, however, was a practice used to extract information from terrorists after 9/11 occurred and the movie’s director Kathryn Bigelow (rightly) defended the portrayal of it.

I think, overall, Americans have become too complacent or lackadaisical in the years since September 11, 2001 and the horror of the terrorist attacks that occurred that day has lapsed in many American’s minds. Despite what people such as Rep. Ron Paul say, the reality is that Americans are safer thanks, in large part, to the new powers federal agents have at their disposal. With the new tools given to them by the USA PATRIOT Act, it is easier for law enforcement to profile, track, and intercept terrorists before they conduct acts of violence and destruction.

The powers granted to federal agencies (like the F.B.I.) will not only be used to prevent Islamic terrorism, but can also be used to halt activities on the part of other radical groups too. Extremist groups such as Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, Army of God and The Lambs of Christ could be subjected to monitoring as well. Doing so can force anti-abortion and eco-terrorists to think twice about bombing or committing acts of vandalism or violence on medical facilities used for surgeries or research and the people who work for them.

There are still numerous legal safeguards in place as well as internal departmental checks on the part of federal law enforcement agencies to ensure they have the right information on a suspect before agents take action. F.B.I. agents can objectively tell the difference between someone peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights and a person that knowingly supports Islamic terrorists in their cause.

Such was the case when the F.B.I. raided the homes of antiwar activists in Minnesota and Chicago during September 2010. The individuals subjected to the raids were the result of investigations in which there was evidence of potential material support of terrorist groups involved on the part of specific antiwar group members resulting from their traveling to Columbia, Lebanon, and then the Gaza Strip.

Prominent libertarians (like former Judge Andrew Napolitano and Future of Freedom Foundation President Jacob Hornberger) and groups (like the ACLU) criticize the usage of military tribunals to prosecute terrorists, enhanced surveillance powers and torture too, respectfully. They essentially state that not only is the USA PATRIOT Act unconstitutional but that one of the best ways to fight terrorism is to not lower our legal and ethical standards. A civilized country, they argue, that casts off acting civilized in times of conflict becomes no better than the enemy.

I distinctly remember while learning about World War II in high school that an unincorporated hamlet named Amagansett, Long Island, New York was one of two landing areas for a group of Nazi German spies. They had false documents, lots of money and were placed in the United States to conduct acts of sabotage (i.e. terrorism).

Not only did a quick-thinking member of the U.S. Coast Guard report their presence upon seeing the Nazi spies arrive at an Amagansett beach on a foggy night during June of 1942 but, fortunately, one of the spies ended up getting cold feet down the line and turned himself and his companions in. Members of both German spy cells were quickly arrested, tried in military courts and most were executed soon after being found guilty. Unfortunately, the warnings passed on to the Bush administration prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings were not heeded and the result was death and destruction on a massive scale.

The U.S.’s last experience with trying terrorists in civilian courts was in 1993 after the first World Trade Center bombing. In addition to needlessly tying up our legal system, if civilian courts are used much of the activities used to monitor and halt terrorists would be public record. This, in turn, would give other wrong-doers the ability to learn from their predecessor’s mistakes and information could be available if criminals wanted to retaliate against witnesses or people who testified for the prosecution. Military tribunals are not necessarily subject to public scrutiny, involve less legal procedure, permit more inclusive rules of evidence and, hence, make prosecutions easier.

International standards of warfare (like the ones outlined by the Geneva Convention) apply to combatants who play by the rules of war. The U.S. government is in a precarious situation where it is faced with an enemy that has no regard for human life and does not accept the international rules of battlefield conduct. Terrorists will use any means necessary to conduct acts of violence and destruction up to and including sacrificing their own lives in order to accomplish their aims.

This being the case, not only is the USA PATRIOT Act and military tribunals appropriate methods to prevent acts of terror and prosecute those who carry such acts out, but torture is also a legitimate means of extracting information. While the methods used on enemy combatants may seem heinous, I do not know of anyone who would not resort to some kind of torture on someone who had knowledge of a major terrorist attack and refused to voluntarily disclose when and where it would occur. Especially if it meant the usage of a nuclear device and the lives of family members or friends were at stake.

Don’t get me wrong, individual rights are inalienable and they may not be given or taken away. However, it is a mistake to treat rights as intrinsic. The choice to torture or resort to making it easier for police to do their jobs in order to stop terrorists is not utilitarian. A terrorist has voluntarily chosen to put themselves in a state of war upon countries (like the U.S.) and peaceful citizens. As a result government agents who conduct acts of torture or scrutinize terrorists via warrant-less wiretaps, monitoring bank records or other means of surveillance are doing their job of keeping the peace since terrorists pose a threat to the rights of the innocent.

Terrorists are not combatants in the sense of battlefield conflict and to treat them the same as American citizens not only will make their job easier but is also a perversion of what individual rights are all about. Rights apply only to citizens in terms of trade and peaceful conduct among each other in a social context. Those who do not respect the individual rights of others (such as terrorists) do not deserve to have theirs respected by anyone.

It is unrealistic if not outright madness for the United States government to be bound by rules of warfare conduct or sets of laws that hinder law enforcement from protecting our individual rights while, simultaneously, being expected to combat an enemy that clearly has no regard for human life. This is the blunt reality Americans (especially libertarians) must face up to, Israel has had to deal with almost since its creation, Barack Obama had to learn upon occupying the Oval Office and that President George W. Bush and members of Congress learned in the shadow of the World Trade Center and Pentagon Bombings on September 11th, 2001