2002-01-26 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk
By Howard Schwach

Alan Dershowitz likes to posit hypothetical situations to get his students thinking outside the box. Prior to September 11, posited the following hypothetical situation to his students at Harvard.

"Terrorists have taken over a plane with hundreds of passengers, and that plane is heading straight for the Empire State Building in an obvious attempt to damage that building. Is the American government justified in ordering that the plane be shot down?"

Dershowitz says that his law students always got a lively discussion going with that hypothetical and with another that he used regularly.

"If you know that a terrorist is holding your child hostage and will kill that child in one hour unless you find out where the child is being held, would you be justified in using torture to find out that information?"

Prior to September 11, those questions were academic hypotheticals. After September 11, however, those hypothetical questions became all too real. In these days of suicide bombers and shoe bombers and anthrax, they are questions that need answering not only by the government, but also by each American citizen.

It is clear from everything we read and see on television that people are both afraid and angry over the terrorist attacks on September 11 and about the "shoe bomber," who had obvious ties to the terrorist organization that perpetrated the attacks.

They are afraid that there will soon be another terrorist attack, an airplane brought down, a bombing at a public place, suicide-bent terrorists shooting up a shopping mall or a restaurant, a car bomb attack on a public building.

There are even some in Rockaway who believe that flight 587 was brought down on Rockaway streets by "shoe-bomber number 1," and that Reid was just a copy-cat.

Each of those things are possibilities. The public, however, wants the government to prevent them from happening.

They are angry that the terrorists seem to be able to move with ease in our free and open society. They don't want society to be so free and so open that we can be attacked at will with no chance for stopping the attacks before they happen.

A recent poll showed that more than one-third of those questioned think that the torture of terrorist suspects to get information is fine with them.

Another twenty-five percent said that torture would be appropriate depending on the circumstances.

A minority said that torture would not be appropriate under any circumstances.

There are organizations, of course, that are opposed to torture under any conditions. They say that their belief is based on our laws and on our Constitution.

In an academic sense, they are probably right.

We do not live any longer in an academic world, however; we live in a world where there are lunatics out to destroy both America and its way of life. Lunatics that will stop at nothing, not even their own demise, to meet those goals.

There are obviously people who use our freedom and our openness as a weapon against us. We trained the hijackers to fly those planes into the World Trade Center. We allowed them access to information, training, weapons, communications facilities and anything else they needed to get the job done. In some cases, we invited them into our streets and paid for them to be here.

There was a television show on last Sunday night that told the fictional story of a terrorist who had planted a nuclear weapon in Chicago and planned to use it. It was the usual Chuck Norris potboiler, but there was a truth in there that has to be told.

The terrorist computer expert who was trained at Cal-Tech and who controlled the bomb said, "It is amazing how America goes out of its way to train those who would destroy it." He was right.

We also go out of our way to help those who would destroy us to stay out of our net.

Witness the case of the "twentieth hijacker" who was being investigated prior to September 11, but who went free because the FBI was unwilling to issue a search warrant for his computer files.

Am I in favor of torture?

I believe that I am, under certain very controlled conditions and with a tight oversight procedure.

Let's go back to the hypotheticals above.

Would I be in favor of shooting down that airliner before it plowed into the Empire State Building, killing not only those on the plane, but thousands on the ground as well? Of course, I would.

Take it one step further. If I knew that terrorist X has information about the flight that was going to be hijacked and what building it would target, would I allow torture to get that information?

In a second!

Would I be willing to see torture used on the person I knew held my children or my grandchildren?

I would do it myself.

And, so would anybody else.

I watched a story about this issue on "Sixty Minutes" last weekend. A spokesperson for Amnesty International or one of the other groups of that ilk, said that he would not allow torture even if it were his child.

I do not believe that for a moment. It is easy to say that when it is a hypothetical. It is not so easy when it is for real and your child will die as a result of your inactivity. Today, it is for real.

Do I care whether the prisoners being held at Guantonimo Bay in Cuba are being treated humanely or not? They have information that we need and we should be allowed to get it. I personally think they should be buried in feces and regularly tortured to tell us where their leaders are hiding. They are not American citizens. They are doing their best to destroy America. They do not deserve the same rights that American citizens enjoy.

Do I care that checking the terrorist's hard drive would be a violation of his rights? Not at all! Checking that hard drive might have unraveled the entire September 11 plot and thousands of Americans might well be alive today if we had.

Do I mind that security at our airports "profiles" those who mirror the hijackers who started this? Not at all. The Israeli's have proven time and time again that checking those who fit their profile keeps terrorists from attacking their planes. There are three rings of security around Israeli airports. The first begins well before people get to the airport. The second is at the door of the terminal. The third is while people wait on line. In any of these places, people who fit the profile are pulled out for closer inspection. No Israeli plane has ever been hijacked though terrorists have been trying for two decades.

That is what we need.

Not platitudes!

Not talk of violating rights!

Common sense.

Walt Kelly once had Pogo say, "we have met the enemy and they are us."

He is right, and we had better start doing something about it, and fast if we want to survive as a nation.

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