“How to Break a Terrorist”

After the attacks on September 11 in New York and Washington, the United States was thrust into a direct confrontation with terrorism. What was the best way to combat terror? How terrorists were brought to justice, questioned and detained became a debate of the ethics involved in the vindication of those lost in the terrorist attack, as well as those who were killed in the military exercises afterwards in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many feel that with something as violent as terrorism, a practice that is intended to put fear into the everyday activities of ordinary civilians, should be eradicated by any means possible. Public officials such as former vice-president Dick Cheney believe that the Geneva Convention did not serve to shield potential terrorists from harsh interrogation methods when questioned. For him and people like him, following the letter of the law would only hinder those who followed it from those who didn’t. The fictional television show “24″ has taken this philosophy to the screen: the hero Jack Bauer gets things done with his heavy hand while those who play by the rules are played as fools by those who wish to bring evil and harm by the masses. Fire with fire, force by force: a person has to do whatever it takes by whatever means to stop terror. If his actions mirror in violent intensity the methods of violence the terrorists practice, so be it. At least they are doing their best to protect the public.

Not so fast, says military interrogator Matthew Alexander. A veteran of the Air Force, Alexander says that he has proof that nonviolent means of interrogation work, regardless of what people such as the former vice president say. In fact, he says treating detainees with respect will break them quicker than if they see you as an adversary. Befriend your suspect, and he will more likely want to cooperate than if you act like the enemy he has been told you are.

Alexander was one of the interrogators involved in bringing down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who wanted to incite civil war between the Shia and the Sunni. His team was specifically picked to bring more civilized interrogation techniques to the war on terror after the disgrace in Abu Ghraib. The subtitle of his book, “How To Break A Terrorist”, says it all: “The U.S. interrogators who used brains, not brutality, to take down the deadliest man in Iraq”. Sometimes, reason prevails over emotion.

Regardless of how impressed some might be with waterboarding as a interrogation technique, Alexander makes a compelling argument that civilized behavior gets more results than simulating drowning or other means that must be kept secret from the public because it violates the law. Alexander’s techniques, because they remain within bounds of the Geneva Convention, can help an open and democratic society stay that way because how the government treats others can be publicized without any recrimination. Even with regards to the ticking time bomb question, Alexander makes a compelling argument that if you are thorough and respectful to begin with, one crack a cell before it gets to the point where one thinks his only option as an interrogator is to be as violent as the terrorist himself.

Alexander’s team was involved in the complicated, long-term process of bringing down a cell, not a bomb blowing up in the next ten minutes. But the circumstances were dire: if his team failed, Iraq would erupt in full scale violence, and the amount of time they had before this happened was unknown. If Alexander is correct, it may be that violent interrogation, even in these emergency circumstances, is counterproductive. A detainee, on the verge of victory against his enemy, will probably only feel vindicated when torture is applied to him in these circumstances. He may feed false information just to send law enforcement in the wrong direction just to buy more time for his cronies. And, if it turns out you have the wrong person or someone who is too low in the pecking order to have any useful information, you have violated your own code of ethics, honor and law for absolutely no result at all. You may put your own team in danger if any of them are captured. After all, you applied the fire: why would they feel any compunction to act any differently if you are now in their custody, under similar circumstances?

Matthew Alexander’s “How to Break A Terrorist” is a perfect riposte to those who think shirking the law is a good idea for a nation that is based on law to do. He shows that the law works, and that humane treatment can be used as a form of nonviolent resistance against even the most evil of people. Human rights and standing up for them is the perfect way to combat the evil that threatens to pervade the freedom of a civilian population. Not allowing the terrorists to make us become like them during wartime becomes a more resounding victory than becoming the enemy we see in the mirror.