You Decide

Produced by KQED

hooded figure repeated against a background of text from the Geneva ConventionsIs torture a legitimate means of combating terrorism?

By Malcolm Gay

Think you know where you stand?

To many, the torture debate begins and ends with the Geneva Conventions: As a signatory to the treaties, it is illegal for agents of the United States to torture. Period. What's more, many view the notion of U.S. operatives resorting to torture as downright un-American. It diminishes our standing in the world, they argue, and doing so potentially exposes our troops, when captured, to retaliatory torture. As if that weren't bad enough, the argument goes, torturing our enemies isn't even worth the potential backlash: Information gleaned by torture is notoriously unreliable.

Nonetheless, other circles view torture as an essential weapon in fighting terrorism. Unlike traditional state aggressors, today's terrorists are undeterred by the threat of massive retaliation against a state's infrastructure. If terrorists cannot be deterred, then our success in this conflict lives and dies with our ability to stop attacks before they occur. That means our operatives need every intelligence-gathering tool at their disposal—including, some argue, torture. As stateless combatants, the argument continues, terrorists do not honor and are not protected by the Geneva Conventions. Further, as nonstate actors who regularly torture and behead their captives, it is laughable to imagine that a terrorist cell—once it knew that the United States had renounced torture—would afford its prisoners the same respect.

Fifty years after their ratification, the Geneva Conventions may still be in effect, but the nature of war has changed. The United States is embroiled in an unconventional conflict with a stateless enemy, prompting many to ask: Should the United States loosen its prohibition on torture?

What do you think? During the course of this activity, we will ask you four times: Is torture a legitimate means of combating terrorism? Based on your responses, we will argue the opposite points of view. Only your final vote will count toward the results of the You Decide poll.

Is torture a legitimate means of combating terrorism?

Nothing about the issues facing the candidates and American voters in 2008 is black and white. With these You Decide activities, you can explore both sides of an issue, put your own critical thinking to work, and discuss the pros and cons with others. In the end, perhaps you will ask different — and better — questions than those presented here.


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