Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan 5762
We love them most of the time, especially when they apply to us. Other times they can get in the way.
Consider, for example, the frustration felt by some FBI and Justice Department investigators in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Some of them are trying to extract information from four suspects, in particular, who the FBI believes are withholding valuable information and who also have been reluctant to talk.
Investigators have gotten nowhere for more than a month. Offers of money, jobs, lighter sentences, new identities and life in this country's witness protection program have failed to loosen the suspects' tongues.
As a result, The Washington Post reports, frustrated agents are beginning to consider whether to resort to forced injections of "truth serum" and other possible stretches of civil liberties.
"It could get to that spot where we could go to pressure … where we won't have a choice, and we are probably getting there," the Post quotes an unnamed FBI agent as saying.
"Pressure," under existing law, can include lying to suspects, but not physical pressure, inhumane treatment or torture. Otherwise, the information obtained in those ways cannot be admitted in trial and the interrogators can be arrested, charged with battery and sued by the victim.
The FBI denied the Post's story that it was considering "truth serum" or other questionable interrogation methods. Attorney General John Ashcroft has instructed Justice Department employees to make sure the detainees' rights are protected. They're not anywhere near ready to endorse torture, officials say.
Yet, the FBI's predicament raises vexing moral questions: How far would you go to extract information that might bring killers to justice and perhaps save more lives?
The question is particularly significant at a time when the Justice Department has cast an unusually wide net to round up more than 970 detainees as potential suspects and material witnesses since Sept. 11.
Yet, even though most of the detainees have not been linked to terrorism by any evidence, many have been held for weeks of imprisonment without access to telephones or Muslim meals, lawyers say.
Reporters and human rights groups have run into a remarkable cloak of secrecy as to who the detainees are and how many are still held. "We are told that judges have issued secrecy orders," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, "but the secrecy orders themselves appear to be secret."
On Monday, her Washington-based group joined with other civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Law Foundation, to request at least the names, lawyers and charges, if any, of the detainees.
At least the Justice Department has found immigration violations or some other offense, however minor, on which to hold these detainees. Compared to earlier suspensions of civil liberties like Franklin D. Roosevelt's incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II or Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, today's roundup looks like small potatoes.
Even so, a few brief weeks ago, it would have been nearly unthinkable to have almost 1,000 detainees in custody, with so little fuss made about whether they belong there. To see how much our national attitudes have changed makes one wonder how much more we might change if there were more terror attacks and more frustration with reluctant witnesses.
"Every society has to decide for itself," said Israeli Knesset member Natan Sharansky when he was asked about the question of torture in a breakfast briefing with journalists Tuesday in Washington. "But, there is a price to be paid."
Sharansky knows. The famous "refusenik" was held for nine years in Soviet prisons before his release in 1986. Elected to the Israeli parliament, he now finds himself defending Israel's policy regarding the morality of torture.
Until 1999 an interrogation technique called "shaking" was legal in Israel, a torture that was more psychological than physical. Recent policy allows only "moderate physical pressure" in what are called "ticking time bomb" situations, where extracting information can save many innocent lives.
Even that policy, humane as it may be when compared to practices allowed in many Arab nations, has brought international criticism. International standing is part of the price a nation pays, Sharansky said, when it adapts drastic methods to respond to a crisis.
A nation also pays a heavy moral price whenever it sacrifices its highest principles of human rights, even temporarily. Like a one-night sinner, we may get what we want, at least for a while, by such straying. But we'll also have a good reason to hate ourselves in the
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