Should suspected terrorists, such as the recently-captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, be tortured in order to extract information from them? Eugene Volokh has a lengthy, ambivalent discussion of the issues surrounding the question. But most commentators, including Richard Cohen, and Anne Applebaum, seem to take it for granted that torture is fundamentally wrong under all circumstances. As Applebaum puts it, "radical Islam will also come to a swifter end if we abide by our own rules of decency at home, and apply them to others as well."
We should immediately acknowledge two obviously legitimate objections to torture: (1) torturing an innocent person is clearly never justified, and torture should therefore never be used when there is the slightest doubt about the victim's complicity in truly odious deeds; and (2) torture is usually not the most likely effective interrogation technique, and should only be used in cases where no other method can be expected to succeed at preventing similar odious deeds in the future. (The classic example is the "ticking bomb" hypothetical, in which a detainee is known to have life-saving information about an immediately pending terrorist attack.)
But suppose that neither of these objections apply--what then? Well, the arguments against torturing terrorists seem to suffer from exactly the same weakness as the arguments against executing murderers; criticism of the most extreme case is really a proxy for general discomfort with the entire class of treatments. When suspected Al Qaida members captured in Afghanistan last winter were first incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, human rights organizations complained about harsh security measures, inadequately comfortable accommodations, and other run-of-the-mill discomforts. Hawkish commentators such as Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds ridiculed the griping. But the Afghan prisoners weren't being put up in fairly harsh, prison-like conditions merely to save money. For one thing, uncomfortable circumstances can prompt prisoners to offer more "cooperation" of various kinds in return for better treatment. How, exactly, is such imposition of discomfort different from torture, except in degree?
Not that degree isn't important, of course, in information-extraction techniques as well as in punishments. We don't execute people for parking violations, after all. But the assertion that torture is always immoral rests on the fallacy that torture is somehow different in kind--not just degree--from the ill-treatment that is meted out to wrongdoers all the time. Or to put it another way, diehard opponents of torture under all circumstances are really against all kinds of coerced cooperation, and use the term, "torture" in order to conjure up its beatings-and-electric-shocks connotations--just as capital punishment opponents really oppose all punishments, and single out capital punishment because it's the harshest punishment currently being contemplated.
Indeed, anti-torture activists do not limit themselves to complaining about beatings and electric shocks; Amnesty International notes that "the definition of torture is constantly evolving", and that "[h]uman rights treaties define torture in broad terms" that apparently can include, for example, sleep deprivation or solitary confinement. The UN definition simply refers to "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental"--an obviously open-ended formulation. The line between "pressure" or "unpleasant treatment" and "torture", in the torture opponent's lexicon, appears simply not to exist.
It would be nice, of course, if we never had to use coercion to extract cooperation from criminals and terrorists, just as it would be nice if we never had to use harsh punishments to deter criminals and terrorists. But we do, unfortunately, have to use these tools from time to time, because human beings are capable of terrible things, and terrible methods must sometimes be employed to prevent or deter those terrible things. If the only way to save lives is to use such methods on a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then use them we must. That is our punishment for belonging to the same deeply flawed species that produced him.