In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program—the so-called “torture report”—many have argued that what we did to captured terrorists after 9/11 was justified because it helped disrupt future terror plots and led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other “enhanced interrogation tactics” saved American lives, we’re told, so it was all worth it—even if we had to bend the law, even if it was inhumane.
But there is a more humane and morally justifiable way we could’ve dealt with terrorists after 9/11. We could have executed them.
We have a precedent for such a response to terrorism. Execution is exactly what we did during World War II. On June 12, 1942, four German saboteurs landed on Long Island, New York, after a voyage across the Atlantic on a German submarine. Four days later, another four-man team landed on a beach south of Jacksonville, Florida. Their mission, codenamed Operation Pastorius, was to blow up hydroelectric works at Niagara Falls, industrial plants in several states, locks on the Ohio River, railroad passes in Pennsylvania, Hell Gate Bridge in New York, and Penn Station in Newark. They planned to bomb mundane civilian targets like railroad stations and public squares. They planned to bomb Jewish-owned businesses.
It was essentially a Nazi terrorist plot. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, noted in his diary that Hitler was obsessed with “the downfall of New York in towers of flames.” Even before the war, Hitler had been intrigued by plans for the Messerschmitt Me 264, the “Amerika Bomber,” a long-range aircraft designed to hit American cities on the east coast. After Germany declared war on the United States, Hitler initiated Pastorius.
German Operatives Received a Military Trial and Swift Execution
The operation did not go well. Soon after making landfall on Long Island and changing into civilian clothes, the Germans were spotted and confronted by a Coast Guard patrolman. The group’s leader, George Dasch, attempted to bribe the patrolman, who promptly returned to his station and reported the incident, launching a massive FBI manhunt. Believing the mission to be compromised, Dasch and another agent, Ernst Burger, conspired to betray their comrades and abort the operation. Dasch turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation on June 15, and within weeks American authorities had apprehended the others. President Roosevelt immediately issued an executive order creating a military tribunal to try the saboteurs, a decision confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The trial lasted less than three weeks and ended on August 1. The Germans were found guilty and sentenced to death. Because Dasch and Burger had turned themselves in and provided information, Roosevelt commuted their sentences to prison terms. The six remaining saboteurs were executed by electric chair on August 8, less than two months after landing in the United States. Their remains were buried in a potter’s field outside Washington DC.
Here was a case of enemy combatants hiding among the civilian population with the objective of carrying out terrorist attacks and industrial sabotage. When we caught them, we didn’t detain them in a special prison, we didn’t waterboard them or force them into coffin-sized boxes for days on end to get them to divulge all they knew. We simply tried and executed them—swiftly.
The Comparison to WWII Is Fair
Of course, some will object that comparing WWII to our interminable post-9/11 “war on terror” is not entirely analogous. In 1942, we were at war with Germany, a nation-state with a government and a military in control of a defined territory. Today, we are at war with an amorphous network of terrorist organization operating all over the world. Yet the Dasch case is similar to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in a few important respects. In both cases, America had recently suffered an unprecedented surprise attack that claimed thousands of lives; U.S. military intelligence and domestic law enforcement agencies were on high alert for further possible (and possibly imminent) attacks; and we had scarce intelligence about the enemy’s capabilities and plans.
Yet the idea of holding enemy saboteurs indefinitely or subjecting them to anything like waterboarding didn’t even occur to U.S. leaders during WWII. Americans were outraged at Japan’s widespread use of torture to gather military intelligence from prisoners of war, and we prosecuted thousands of Japanese personnel after the war for these crimes. The notion that we would treat prisoners, even spies and saboteurs, in anything close to the way the Japanese treated their prisoners was repugnant to Americans.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how precisely analogous comparisons are between WWII and the war on terror, because torturing prisoners shouldn’t be subject to some kind of body count arithmetic about how many lives might have been saved if we did this or that. Torture is either morally justifiable or it isn’t, and the circumstances and arguments for or against its effectiveness are ancillary. Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the mastermind of 9/11, either has basic human rights or he doesn’t. If he does, we shouldn’t torture him or even treat him inhumanely.
Torture Can Never Be a Just Punishment
Herein lies an important distinction: a man may, owing to the severity of his crimes, lose his right to live; he should never lose his right to be treated humanely, to die with a measure of dignity. His punishment is that he lose his life—not his humanity. This holds even for the wicked, who have not themselves been humane to their victims.
An extension—and arguably a perversion—of this principle may well account for the sharp rise in drone strikes against terrorist targets under President Obama, more than six times as many as his predecessor. In light of the barbarity that a place like Guantanamo requires, so the thinking goes, perhaps it is better if we do not apprehend these men in the first place. In a recent column, Victor Davis Hanson asked whether the next Senate Intelligence Committee will “charge that in the topsy-turvy morality of the Obama presidency, his administration preferred to bypass Guantanamo by choosing to kill suspected terrorists rather than capture them?” Maybe that’s precisely what the president was thinking—rid himself, and us, of the greater evil in favor of a lesser one.
Christopher Hitchens once told an audience of liberal college students that Guantanamo was an outrage. Asked what should be done with the detainees, he replied—to the students’ horror—that if it were up to him he’d have the terrorists lined up and executed by firing squad. That shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. In the wake of the Taliban’s slaughter last Tuesday of 145 people at a Pakistani school, most of them children, one mourner at a recent vigil for the victims in Lahore held up a placard that declared: “Terrorists should be publicly executed.”
Perhaps they should. They should certainly not be tortured.