Thou Shalt Not Torture

It should have been a commandment. Article 5 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by all the member states of the United Nations, says so, unequivocally: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Period.

All this, of course, I write apropos the accusations against the CIA over the use of torture to gain information capable of revealing the conspiracies and plans of terrorists. The United States had been surprised by the terrible acts of Al Qaeda's radical Islamists, which had left about 3,000 dead on the streets of New York City and Washington.

George W. Bush and the U.S. intelligence services wanted to find out who their enemies were, what plans they had, and when they expected to strike again. In Washington, they were both scared and eager for revenge. Somehow, that was also the anxious attitude of the whole of society.

The task was extremely difficult. This time, the enemies were Arabs of a dozen of different origins -- predominantly Saudi, Egyptian and Yemeni -- Afghans, Iranians, Chechens and other adversaries even more exotic from a U.S. perspective. They were all united by Islam and by hatred toward the U.S. and Israel, but they formed a monster with a thousand heads.

Apparently, the most direct way to begin to unravel that skein was to get information from the prisoners and that's why their captors tortured them. But first, was there total certainty of the guilt of all the prisoners? And, second, if the captors did not subject them to "the third degree," how could they achieve that collaboration? It wasn't useful to threaten them with court-ordered execution, because martyrdom was the personal objective of them all. It was the gate to Paradise.

The investigation was very confused. Everything led to perplexity: the languages the terrorists spoke, their cultural factors, the religious motivations, the geography. When researchers studied the biography of Mohammed Atta, the suicidal leader who directed the planes against the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, they discovered a young Egyptian educated in Hamburg -- an urban architect -- profoundly pious, who acted out of ideological conviction. Many of the other terrorists had a similar profile.

So much for the justifications currently heard for the denunciation of torture. But, frankly, they're not very useful. There are three factors that are a lot more important than the circumstances in which the U.S. found itself, shocked at the time by the terrorist attack.

In the first place, there's the law. The United States is a nation of laws. If the Fifth Amendment and the international treaties signed by the U.S. ban the use of torture, no one has the right to resort to it, and the president cannot order its practice.

The president or Congress can try to change the rules, but they're not authorized to violate them. This is not legal nitpicking but an essential means of protection. If one public power or more can ignore the existing legislation at will, the republican foundations are demolished.

In second place, there's the values. A society is, or should be, a community held together by principles, as well as rules. Allegedly, in the United States, the values that consecrate compassion and the respect for the integrity of individuals prevail. One expects fascism, Nazism or communism -- which justify everything in terms of their bloody utopias -- to resort to torture, but not a liberal democracy.

Finally, there's the melancholy conviction that the confessions extracted through torture and mistreatment don't usually reflect the truth. Inquisition documents, written by the pyres where the victims burned, tell of the most absurd confessions: carnal intercourse with the Devil, visions of mythological animals, flights atop brooms.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, in Europe alone, more than 100,000 people, almost all of them women, were cruelly tortured to extract from them the most bizarre statements. They would confess to anything, so long as their torment would end.

Therefore, liberal democracy cannot behave like the enemies of freedom. Will the risks and sacrifices increase? Probably, but that's the price to live in free societies and we must always be ready to pay it.