Terror vs. Liberty


Goldfarb events consider balance of security and civil rights

By Neha Sud '05
Photography by Brian Speer

Illustration by Brian Speer
"There is a bomb ticking somewhere on Colby campus," annnounced Professor Kenneth Rodman during a policy workshop on terrorism. "You have arrested the person who planted the bomb, but he refuses to disclose its location. How many of you would torture the detainee to find out where the bomb is?"

After some hesitation, roughly half the students in the workshop raised their hands.

Rodman, the William R. Cotter Distinguished Teaching Professor of Government, posed a second question: "How many of you think that law enforcement officers will use torture?"

Immediately, the hands of all 20 participants shot up.

Rodman's questions marked the culmination of a series of events last semester titled "Fighting Terrorism: Ethical and Policy Dilemmas." Sponsored by Colby's Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, the events ran intermittently from April 5 to April 15.

Since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of last year, the question "what constitutes a justified response to terrorism?" has taken on particular urgency. According to Ariel Armony, assistant professor of government, the Goldfarb events were organized to illustrate the challenges of policy making in fighting terrorism.

"To provide complete protection from terrorism you can build a police state," Armony said. "But America is a democracy. As a democracy, we must provide effective protection from terrorism while sustaining and protecting civil liberties."

But where to strike the balance? Should laws be changed or ignored?

In his keynote address to the Goldfarb events, "Terrorism, Freedom, and Security," Philip Heymann, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a deputy U.S. attorney general in 1993 and 1994, focused on the necessity of responding to the terrorist threat in a manner consistent with the rule of law. He stressed that officials must be kept accountable to the system of criminal justice.

The conference's panel discussion, "Counterterrorism Tactics: Balancing Effective Policy and Human Rights," delved deeper into the policy dilemmas surrounding national security. The discussion featured four experts, all of whom agreed that coercive interrogation should never be the first resort. "The best way to get intelligence [regarding] terrorism is not to use torture but to find a source that provides continuing information," said Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Rand Beers, who worked as a counterterrorism advisor to President George W. Bush before quitting in protest of White House policies, was pessimistic. "Today, guidance as to intelligence has become more muddy, and we don't have an oversight organization to rectify that," he said.

Joseph Saunders, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, shared Beers's concerns about the culture of interrogation becoming looser. Saunders claimed, "we are facing a new kind of threat, but the greater danger is what we can do to ourselves more than what they do to us."

Margaret Crahan, professor of Latin American history at the City University of New York, advocated strengthening the international legal system in order to curtail the use of torture. "The issue needs to be transnational, and governments must be held accountable," she said.

In addition to national policy concerns about torture, the conference also featured events that broached the issue from a more personal perspective. Two plays written by Colby faculty members""The Wretched," by Laura Chakravarty Box, assistant professor of theater and dance, and "All Pillows Are Soft," by Armony"were performed. Armony's play explored the moral quandary of a young nurse who discovers that the comatose patient in her charge is a former Argentinean lieutenant. The nurse then must decide whether to kill him.

The Goldfarb series ended with "The Ticking Bomb and Other Scenarios," Rodman's policy workshop. The workshop examined Israel's former interrogation policy of applying "moderate physical pressure," the only national policy to have sanctioned coercive interrogation in so-called "ticking bomb scenarios." Rodman divided students into three teams: the first defended the Shin Bet (Israel's internal security service), the second represented the moralistic concerns of human-rights advocates, and the third team acted as neutral judges questioning both teams.

The team representing Shin Bet argued that the terrorist threat had placed Israel in a state of "supreme emergency," thus justifying the use of "stress and duress" in order to elicit information. The human-rights advocacy team retorted that torture is a degrading and morally reprehensible act that must be prohibited under all circumstances. By the end of the workshop, students understood that the greatest dilemma of counterterrorism policy is the reconciliation of effective intelligence gathering with adherence to humanitarian norms.

As the international debate over torture has escalated, policy makers have struggled anew to find an alternative to extralegal coercive interrogation. A controversial idea proposed by civil libertarian and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz recommends the legalization of torture to elicit information from terrorists. He believes torture is inevitable and will be used regardless of laws prohibiting it. Instead of being hypocritical, it is better to institutionalize torture by issuing warrants against specific individuals. The institutionalization of torture will ensure that its perpetrators are held legally accountable, he argues. There was little support at the conference for Dershowitz's radical proposition.

Meanwhile, this spring the U.S. Department of Defense drafted new guidelines for Army interrogation techniques and carried out criminal prosecutions in connection with Abu Ghraib.

Many experts believe these are cursory gestures. Critics maintain that the manner in which most threatened states have responded to terrorism has compromised the status of liberal democracies as humanitarian regimes. Some citizens of such democracies may themselves have moral scruples about using torture, but, as the response to Rodman's hypothetical question indicates, there appear to be few doubts that, for now, governments will continue to engage in such acts.