Commendably, Professor Philip Heymann ’60 proposes establishing “the world’s best noncoercive interrogation body” [“A Question of Interrogation,” Winter 2010] and stresses that “the United States should always abide by its statutory and treaty obligations.” But, disturbingly, he also favors “an emergency exception that would allow the president to authorize lesser coercive techniques” under some circumstances. That sounds like “torture lite,” which Sister Dianna Ortiz [who was abducted and tortured in Guatemala] calls “an obscenity”; and it apparently rests on the popular but false assumption that coercion elicits accurate, timely information more effectively than time-tested, noncoercive methods do.
The underlying problem seems to be that much of the public, perhaps because of Bush-Cheney propaganda and entertainment like Fox Broadcasting’s “24,” does not appreciate just how counterproductive coercive methods really are. Educating people to the fact that lawful, civilized methods make them safer—and that torture has betrayed our nation’s intelligence gathering along with much else—may be beyond Professor Heymann’s scope, but it is not beyond that of President Obama ’91. Perhaps he will yet use his bully pulpit to show Americans where their true safety lies and, not incidentally, to make it very hard for a future administration that reverts to torture to enjoy the same impunity that the administration personnel who authorized torture after 9/11 enjoy today.
Bell is writing a book, titled “Sisters in the Storm,” about two women who were tortured and a third (Jennifer K. Harbury ’78) whose husband was tortured and murdered in Guatemala.