Is There a Torturous Road to Justice?

Skip to first unread message

Steve Hiner

Nov 8, 2001, 10:21:15 AM11/8/01
November 8 2001

Alan M. Dershowitz is a Harvard law professor


The FBI's frustration over its inability to get material witnesses to talk
has raised a disturbing question rarely debated in this country: When, if
ever, is it justified to resort to unconventional techniques such as truth
serum, moderate physical pressure and outright torture?

The constitutional answer to this question may surprise people who are not
familiar with the current U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the 5th
Amendment privilege against self-incrimination: Any interrogation technique,
including the use of truth serum or even torture, is not prohibited. All
that is prohibited is the introduction into evidence of the fruits of such
techniques in a criminal trial against the person on whom the techniques
were used. But the evidence could be used against that suspect in a
non-criminal case--such as a deportation hearing--or against someone else.

If a suspect is given "use immunity"--a judicial decree announcing in
advance that nothing the defendant says (or its fruits) can be used against
him in a criminal case--he can be compelled to answer all proper questions.
The issue then becomes what sorts of pressures can constitutionally be used
to implement that compulsion. We know that he can be imprisoned until he
talks. But what if imprisonment is insufficient to compel him to do what he
has a legal obligation to do? Can other techniques of compulsion be

Let's start with truth serum. What right would be violated if an immunized
suspect who refused to comply with his legal obligation to answer questions
truthfully were compelled to submit to an injection that made him do so?

Not his privilege against self-incrimination, since he has no such privilege
now that he has been given immunity.

What about his right of bodily integrity? The involuntariness of the
injection itself does not pose a constitutional barrier. No less a civil
libertarian than Justice William J. Brennan rendered a decision that
permitted an allegedly drunken driver to be involuntarily injected to remove
blood for alcohol testing. Certainly there can be no constitutional
distinction between an injection that removes a liquid and one that injects
a liquid.

What about the nature of the substance injected? If it is relatively benign
and creates no significant health risk, the only issue would be that it
compels the recipient to do something he doesn't want to do. But he has a
legal obligation to do precisely what the serum compels him to do: answer
all questions truthfully.

What if the truth serum doesn't work? Could the judge issue a "torture
warrant," authorizing the FBI to employ specified forms of non-lethal
physical pressure to compel the immunized suspect to talk?

Here we run into another provision of the Constitution--the due process
clause, which may include a general "shock the conscience" test. And torture
in general certainly shocks the conscience of most civilized nations.

But what if it were limited to the rare "ticking bomb" case--the situation
in which a captured terrorist who knows of an imminent large-scale threat
refuses to disclose it?

Would torturing one guilty terrorist to prevent the deaths of a thousand
innocent civilians shock the conscience of all decent people?

To prove that it would not, consider a situation in which a kidnapped child
had been buried in a box with two hours of oxygen. The kidnapper refuses to
disclose its location. Should we not consider torture in that situation?

All of that said, the argument for allowing torture as an approved
technique, even in a narrowly specified range of cases, is very troubling.

We know from experience that law enforcement personnel who are given limited
authority to torture will expand its use. The cases that have generated the
current debate over torture illustrate this problem. And, concerning the
arrests made following the Sept. 11 attacks, there is no reason to believe
that the detainees know about specific future terrorist targets. Yet there
have been calls to torture these detainees.

I have no doubt that if an actual ticking bomb situation were to arise, our
law enforcement authorities would torture. The real debate is whether such
torture should take place outside of our legal system or within it. The
answer to this seems clear: If we are to have torture, it should be
authorized by the law.

Judges should have to issue a "torture warrant" in each case. Thus we would
not be winking an eye of quiet approval at torture while publicly condemning

Democracy requires accountability and transparency, especially when
extraordinary steps are taken. Most important, it requires compliance with
the rule of law. And such compliance is impossible when an extraordinary
technique, such as torture, operates outside of the law.

Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages