SINCE the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s dramatic confessions, moral outrage at the extent of his crimes has been mixed with doubts. Can his claims be trusted? What if he confessed to more than he really did, either because of a vain desire to be remembered as the big terrorist mastermind, or because he was ready to confess anything in order to stop the water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques”?
If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.
While the scope of Mr. Mohammed’s crimes is clear and horrifying, it is worth noting that the United States seems incapable of treating him even as it would the hardest criminal — in the civilized Western world, even the most depraved child murderer gets judged and punished. But any legal trial and punishment of Mr. Mohammed is now impossible — no court that operates within the frames of Western legal systems can deal with illegal detentions, confessions obtained by torture and the like. (And this conforms, perversely, to Mr. Mohammed’s desire to be treated as an enemy rather than a criminal.)
[Appeared in New York Times on Marc 24th, 2007. Full text here.]