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Jack Bauer vs. The Underpants Bomber

February 6th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

About a year ago I wrote a lengthy piece railing against the arguments often used by proponents of torture to justify the abandonment of basic moral principles for the sake of the perception of added safety. I argued that not only do methods of torture such as waterboarding not work to secure reliable intelligence (people will say anything to stop the torture, whether true or not) but that it’s far more effective to treat prisoners humanely. It’s not just the morally right thing to do—our country was able to be proud of its treatment of prisoners up until the era of the Bush war criminals—but it also gets results.

With news this week that “Underpants Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been providing actionable intelligence regarding terrorists in Yemen without ever having been tortured at all, I feel quite justified in tossing out a big fat “I told you so” and adding another point to consider with regards to the torture argument.

Ever since the Christmas Day terrorist attack, Republicans have been up in arms that we actually granted legal rights to the attacker, let him try his case in federal court, and didn’t bring in Jack Bauer in to start electrocuting his testicles the moment he got off the plane. How else were we going to get him to give up the location of the next nuclear bomb about to detonate in downtown Los Angeles…oh wait…I’m getting confused between reality and 24. That tends to happen after too much exposure to Republican talking points.

The fact is that Republicans want everyone to think that reality is the show 24, where terrorists are simply one-dimensional caricatures motivated by nothing more than a thirst for American blood. In the show, no terrorist willingly gives up any information without being forcefully coerced, and whenever some government bureaucrat sticks his nose in and insists that a detainee be given a lawyer and protected from harsh interrogation, the terrorist is usually seen smiling or laughing at his captors, amused that the unfolding attack can continue unhindered thanks to America’s weak, liberal sissy-pants legal system. No, in 24, the only way to protect innocent Americans is to torture the shit out of the bad guy until he finally relents and gives up the exact location of the ticking time-bomb. Oddly enough, he never simply lies about the location and sends Jack Bauer to a decoy location while the bomb explodes all the way on the other side of town. Perhaps the terrorists have some moral qualms about lying.

But let’s consider real life for a moment. Put yourself, if you will, in the underpants of the next Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as he sits on the plane ready to detonate. You really want to kill yourself some Americans, but you’re also naturally a bit nervous. After all, you’ve never died before. It might not be as fun as your terrorist leaders say it is. But you’ve come this far, and you’re not going to turn back now. You’ve seen 24, so you know that if you fail Jack Bauer is going to torture the crap out of you. You’d better make sure you succeed then. Go into the bathroom and do it so that nobody has time to stop you.

But what if there was no 24? What if there was no Guantanamo? What if there had been no Bush administration, and the United States was still known as a beacon of human rights where all prisoners, regardless of race, creed, or national origin were given fair and humane treatment? Then you know that if you fail, it won’t be so bad. They’ll probably lock you up for life but if you cooperate they probably won’t kill you. Maybe you should detonate out here in the cabin amidst all the other passengers so they have a chance to stop you. You can still be proud of yourself for trying, but you get to continue living.

Or to take it one step further—maybe you shouldn’t detonate at all. After all, the United States may be full of infidels but they certainly treat your brethren fairly well when they hold them prisoner. Americans may be rich, arrogant unbelievers but it’s not like they’re bloodthirsty sadists. They don’t strip down your fellow Muslims and pile their naked bodies on top of each other. They don’t piss on your holy texts in front of you while laughing. They don’t hold people in a prison somewhere for an indefinite amount of time without ever giving them a chance to speak in their own defense. And they certainly don’t strap you to a board and pour water up your nose to extract a false confession to support their political case for going to war with another Muslim country. Americans treat prisoners extremely well, almost too well. Considering the fact that you and your terrorist ilk are perfectly willing to murder their children, they sure do go out of their way to make you comfortable and ensure that the justice they bring you will be as fair and impartial as possible. So why are you blowing yourself up again?

You see my point. The proponents of torture are living in a fantasy world in which white is black, black is white, up is down, and down is up. Torturing terrorists = more terrorists and more terrorism. Treating prisoners humanely and granting them basic legal rights = less terrorists and less terrorism. This is such basic common fucking sense that it boggles my mind that so many people have been duped into believing otherwise. Okay, maybe you hate terrorists because they kill innocent people. That’s fine. That’s understandable. If I got my hands on anyone who was responsible for the deaths of innocent children, I’d want to make them suffer too. But as emotionally satisfying as that would be, it would only contribute to a climate in which terrorists have an easier time picking up new recruits because they can paint their enemies as sadistic monsters. By torturing a terrorist, you’re making more terrorists, and any blood they might spill is partially on your hands.

Republicans have never been so blatant about advocating torture as they have been over the underpants bomber. Even during the Bush administration, one still had to be careful when discussing torture. “We don’t torture” was still the default position—we were just arguing over what constituted torture and whether things like stress positions and waterboarding go too far. But now it seems the debate has shifted even further to the crazy right and Republicans are actually saying “We should torture”.

Everyone who called for the torture of Abdulmutallab was handing a big fat gift to Al Quaeda recruiters. “Look at how evil our enemy is,” they can say. “And you’d better make sure you succeed in blowing yourself up, because they’ll torture you if you fail.” The next time a kid joins Al Quaeda and blows up a bus full of schoolchildren because they heard some Republican hack spewing his ignorant garbage about how Muslims ought to be tortured, that blood will be on the hands of that Republican.

But under the Obama administration—and this is one of the many little things he deserves credit for—we’re granting the same rights to terrorists as we would to anyone who commits any other crime. This makes perfect sense. How is it that someone who rapes and murders children deserves a fair trial but an Islamic terrorist doesn’t? We seem to be recognizing that now. So we gave Abdulmutallab his rights, enlisted the co-operation of his family members back in Yemen, showed him that the United States isn’t as evil as Dick Cheney had led him to believe, and as a result he gave us valuable information that may very well save some innocent lives. Let this be a lesson to all future would-be terrorists: we’ve changed. Jack Bauer is no longer on the payroll.

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