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Torturous Questions

Amidst the debate on whether the Obama administration was wise to release Justice Department legal opinions on torture, and whether former Bush administration officials should be held accountable — and, if so, how — there is one uncomfortable question we must ask: How did this happen on our watch? How did we become a nation that uses verbal semantics and political obfuscations to turn “torture” into an “interrogation technique,” sounding more like a skill one learns in graduate school than a brutal, dehumanizing, largely ineffective and generally outlawed action?

How did we let real and understandable fear of another terrorist attack overshadow a national commitment to human rights that, once, formed the basis for America’s good name? How could our government sanction the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding without realizing that this nation prosecuted others for doing the same, horrible thing after World War II? How did we become like our enemies?

Why did we not insist that the United States follow Israel’s example? The existential threat there is far more present and tangible, and yet, since a high court ruling a decade ago, Israel has notably resisted most use of torture. The 1999 decision said that any physical means of interrogation must be “reasonable and fair” and, absent any special provision, those interrogating terror detainees were to act no differently than if they were ordinary police investigators. It stipulates that the detentions of terrorist suspect detainees must be reviewed by a judge every six months in a proceeding with defense attorneys present for argument.

There are disturbing loopholes, and human rights groups have accused Israel of violating its own law. But the frequency of abuse and mistreatment of detainees has decreased sharply.

In his book “The Judge in a Democracy,” Aharon Barak, who was president of Israel’s Supreme Court when it ruled on torture, discusses the challenge that terrorism poses for democratic countries trying to provide security while adhering to law and human rights. When his court held that violent interrogation of a suspected terrorist is not lawful, even if doing so may save human life by preventing impending terrorist acts, Barak wrote: “We are aware that this decision does not make it easier to deal with that reality. This is the fate of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all methods employed by its enemies are open to it. Sometimes a democracy must fight with one hand tied behind its back. Nonetheless, it has the upper hand.”

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