Alternative Torture

US Army Military Police escort detainee to interrogation, Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba, on texture, partial graphic 2005/5/16
President Bush has been at odds lately with some people from his own party regarding what is and what is not OK to do to terrorist suspects while questioning them. He advocates "alternative interrogation practices." He seems to feel that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions — which bars "outrages upon personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment" — ties the hands of American interrogators instead of tying the hands of the person being interrogated.

The president refuses to say what he means by "alternative interrogation practices," but should he be attacked just because he wants to keep a secret?

There seem to be two main issues that those who oppose the president raise: The first is that experts say that torture is ineffective — the guy being tortured generally just says whatever he thinks the torturer wants to hear. The second point is that if we feel we don't have to stick to the wording of the Geneva Conventions, other countries won't feel that they have to abide by those rules either. Sen. John McCain, certainly an expert on torture, feels that this would put future American captives at great risk. Someone even removed the gag from Colin Powell's mouth, and he wrote in a letter to McCain that, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts."

Many of the people who oppose the president's position believe that when he says American questioners should be able to use "alternative interrogation techniques," he means "torture." In fact, the president's latest bill specifically would prohibit torture, so I don't know why people are so suspicious just because the president won't tell us what he means. Has he ever tried to deceive us before?

Maybe he means the captive has to answer the question in the form of a question — like on "Jeopardy." Maybe he means all the questions have to rhyme. Maybe he means the interrogator has to mispronounce "nuclear."

There are countless possibilities as to what he means by "alternative interrogation practices." It's quite possible that Mr. Bush and his people have some very creative methods in mind, but they just don't want to tip their hand. There are many things besides torture that could break down a captive's resistance and get him or her to talk. For example:

They could take the suspect to the movies and seat him in front of a guy who talks throughout the film. That suspect will soon reveal all he knows if it will shut up the obnoxious talker.

Other ways to make the suspect say, "OK, I give up. I'll tell you everything" include:

  • Having him call a software company for support, and being put on hold and having to hear over and over again that "your call is important to us" until he agrees to confess.
  • Making him drive behind a car whose turn signal is on, but the driver never turns.
  • Putting him in coach on a cross-country flight in between two people who feel a need to tell "funny" stories about their jobs.
  • Having him take a shower, and then turning off the water right when he gets soaped up.
  • Having him watch a great basketball game that was recorded earlier. When the game is tied and is just about to go into overtime, all the interrogator has to do is say that he'll announce who won if the suspect doesn't reveal all he knows.
  • Forcing him to go to a third grade production of "Rent."
  • Having him show up at a friend's house for a dinner party only to learn, once they open the door, that the party is not tonight, but next Saturday night.
So let's not jump to conclusions about President Bush on this issue. Let's not assume that he has something dark and mysterious in mind that anybody concerned with treating people in a humane way would oppose. But I wish they'd get this thing resolved. I don't think I can listen to too many more speeches in which the president declares that anyone who disagrees with him just doesn't understand what's necessary to protect the country. Listening to those speeches has become real torture.

Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, sometimes while flying coach between two people telling "funny" stories about their jobs.

By Lloyd Garver