In the briefcase I was carrying onto the plane was the Jan. 11 issue of The Economist, with its cover illustration of a bound and hooded prisoner and the stark question: "Is torture ever justified?" Inside was an article exploring the fraught and uneasy suggestion that in fighting terrorism, torture may sometimes be necessary to avert horrific bloodshed. Can a democracy ever violate the taboo against using pain as a tool of interrogation without violating its fundamental values? I was interested in The Economist's take on the issue.
But first I had to run the airport security gantlet. I joined the long line of passengers slowly inching forward and for around the 30th time since 9/11, underwent the institutionalized delay and indignity that is now routine at American airports.
Because a couple of overlooked coins in my pocket set off the metal detector, I was led off to the side for a body scan. Shoes off, please. Raise your leg, please. Now the other one. Stand up. Hold out your arms. Turn this way, please. All right, you can go.
Wouldn't it have been more efficient and logical to just send me (minus the coins) through the metal detector a second time? Yes, but efficiency and logic are not the point of this grind. If it were, toddlers and grandmothers wouldn't be subjected to pat-downs, G.I. Joe action figures wouldn't be seized from their young owners, and government agents wouldn't be treating fingernail scissors as contraband. The point of all this wasted time, money, and effort is not to ensure a reasonable level of airport security. It is to prevent Mohammed Atta from getting on a plane with box cutters and doing it again.
Or if not Atta himself, then someone else -- maybe a 5-year-old girl or an elderly man. And if not with box cutters, then with something else -- maybe nail scissors or G.I. Joe's toy gun. America was attacked by people who took things on planes, so now everyone who takes things on a plane must be restricted, hassled, and occasionally embarrassed.
It is a classic case of fighting the last war. And how many terrorists has it caught? To the best of my knowledge, none. The only case of a passenger-terrorist since 9/11 is the convicted shoe bomber, Richard Reid. He slipped through security because nobody was on the lookout for explosive footwear. (It wasn't what the 9/11 hijackers had used.) And if Reid had instead tried to blow himself up with explosive eyeglasses? In that case, passengers who wear glasses would now have to put them through the X-ray machine -- and screeners still wouldn't be looking for explosive footwear.
I wrote last year that if on 9/11 Al Qaeda had destroyed four crowded movie theaters, today we would have to reserve movie tickets in advance and get to the cineplex (with photo ID) two hours early -- while at the airport there would be no armed guards and a box cutter in your carry-on wouldn't raise any eyebrows. We would still be as vulnerable to a hijacking-massacre as we actually were on 9/11 -- but almost no one would be thinking about that because the "last war" would have taken a different form.
Of course security is important. But we cannot win the war against international terror and its sponsors with elaborate schemes to keep terrorists from repeating their last attack. Information is vital, too. Yet even if we develop the best intelligence on the terrorists' future plans, it too will be insufficient to win the war.
Which returns me to torture, and The Economist's thoughtful essay.
The civilized world condemns torture as irredeemably barbaric; one of the strongest counts in the indictment against Saddam Hussein, for example, is the use of torture in his prisons. But what if, in an extreme case, torture is the only way to extract information that would save thousands of lives? Abhorrent as it is, if torture can prevent another 9/11 -- stop a "ticking bomb" before it goes off -- should it sometimes be allowed? We face enemies prepared not only to murder thousands of victims but to die while doing so. Don't we have to keep torture available as a last and desperate option?
No. The way to win this war is not to adopt our enemies' evil methods. Resort to torture could conceivably stave off a catastrophe. But at what price to our self-respect? "The morale of the West in what may be a long war against terrorism would be gravely set back," The Economist rightly argues. "To stay strong, the liberal democracies need to be certain that they are better than their enemies." We are in a war of the decent against the indecent. We dare not cross the line that separates the two.
Exasperating airport security and the torture of suspected terrorists have nothing in common -- except this: At the end of the day, neither will keep us safe from terrorism. The war will be won only when our enemies' cause lies in ruins. And their cause will lie in ruins when the terror masters are brought down.
Next: Changing regimes