By Alan Dershowitz
The opinions expressed are his own.
One goal of terrorism directed against democracies is to provoke overreaction and repression. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, many Americans did in fact overreact, and although the actions of the government did not approach “repression,” there were some overreactions that seemed to play into the hands of the terrorists. Perhaps the most egregious were the acts of humiliation and torture that were captured by cell phone photographs at Abu Ghraib prison. These disturbing photographs went viral throughout the world and showed the ugly face of American torture. Surprisingly, the events of 9/11 also stimulated a debate within Western democracies: Is torture ever justified in the war against terrorism?
Rational discussion of this and other questions relating to torture proved difficult, because the issues are so emotional. Indeed, to many absolutists, the very idea of a “rational” discussion of torture is an oxymoron. To them, the issue is simple and clear-cut: torture should never be employed or even considered, because it never works; it is incompatible with democratic values; it is barbaric; it will always lead to more barbaric practices; it is worse than any evils it may prevent; it will provoke even more terrorism; it strips any democracy employing it of the moral standing to object to human rights violations by other nations or groups; and it unleashes the “law of unintended consequences.”