Imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of a stadium packed with twenty thousand people, and they are not happy with you. They all have one thing in common: each one lost a spouse, sibling, child, or parent when terrorists blew up the Liberty Tower in LA, the tallest skyscraper on the west coast.
You were responsible for gathering intelligence from 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after he was captured in March of 2003 in Pakistan. This Al Qaeda leader, already responsible for the deaths of three thousand Americans, had vital knowledge about no fewer than nine terror plots in various stages of planning, and had information which could lead to the arrest of dozens of terrorists around the world.
But Khalid was not willing to share that information freely. He held out against standard interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation and prolonged exposure to cold.
There was one more technique available to you: waterboarding. In this interrogation method, the subject is strapped to a board and positioned with his feet slightly above his head. A cloth is wrapped tightly around his face, and water is poured over his head, creating the sensation of asphyxiation. While this may cause great distress, it is harmless when conducted properly. CIA members routinely practice this technique on each other, and most people give in to the demands of the interrogator is less than a minute.
You, however, decided that it would not be morally acceptable to use this interrogation technique with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. After all, in America we take the high road, and waterboarding the man who conceived the idea of 9/11 would make us morally equivalent to Khmer Rouge, Hitler, Idi Amin, or Saddam, evil dictators who tortured, mutilated, and killed people in their quest to torture, mutilate, and kill more people.
As a result, the information which could have prevented the attack on the Liberty Tower remained locked inside of the head of one of the most evil men alive.
You are about to address the family members of those who were killed. What will you say to them? How will you justify your decision? How will you make the case that it was better for their loved ones to be murdered than to subject Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to two minutes of agony? How will you convince these people that it was morally superior to assure the comfort of a terrorist than to protect the lives of innocent Americans? Come on! What are you going to say?
Fortunately, this scenario is only in our imagination. In the real world, a defiant Khalid held out against many other interrogation techniques, until as a last resort they proceeded to waterboarding. Two minutes into the procedure, a broken Mohammed begged for relief. His extensive confession led to the thwarting of a number of terror plots (including the imminent operation to blow up Liberty Tower) and the capture of dozens of terrorists in many different countries. Mohammed’s case was not unusual in how quickly it worked. It was unusual for how long Mohammed was able to withstand it. Most terrorists break down in half that time. It is not known exactly how often waterboarding is employed, but it has been made known that it has worked every time it has been tried. Information obtained in this way has led to the capture of numerous terrorists and the prevention of many deadly plots, saving an untold number of lives.
The claim that waterboarding is unethical does not hold up to closer scrutiny. To illustrate this, let us contrast waterboarding to the most common approach which involved prolonged sleep deprivation combined with exposure to cold. This can take days or weeks to break the captive down to the point of giving up the desired information, often resulting in long-term physical or psychological trauma. And even then it is much more likely that the subject, given that much time to consider his options, will provide false or misleading information. Waterboarding, on the other hand, lasts for a few fleeting minutes, and carries the least risk of long-term harm. Not only is it more effective, it is also the most humane.
A form of mercy is extended to the murderous terrorist which he would not extend to his innocent victims: the anguish is stopped the moment he expressed a desire for it to be so. While the terrorist seeks to commit horrendous acts of mass murder, leaving as many mangled corpses behind as possible, waterboarding permits the terrorist to live to see another day, unscathed by his momentary ordeal. But it provides us the intelligence we urgently need to save innocent lives.
Our government is not only justified in using this technique with people such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, they are morally obligated to use it.