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Another unchallenged assumption about counterterrorism, akin to the "war like no other" myth, is the idea that terrorist attacks are always just about to happen. When you have a suspected terrorist in custody, therefore, you have the chance to prevent imminent bloodshed.
Case in point: the recently-leaked memos from White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez. Probably less spicy than other details, but no less important, is this passage:
"The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes such as wantonly killing civilians."
Once again, the implication is, "If you've nabbed a suspected terrorist, you may be racing against the clock to prevent an attack. What do you do?" Abu Ghraib has now made famous the "ticking bomb" standard for deciding whether to suspend the normal restrictions on prisoner interrogation.
But how imminent is a terrorist attack? In some cases, such as laying mines on a convoy route, not a lot of preparation is needed. However, the normal terrorist attack takes weeks, months, even years to plan and execute. A Palestinian suicide bombers has to be recruited, indoctrinated and trained. The bomber then waits to receive instructions about the target the terrorist planners want to hit, records a farewell video, and then goes on the mission. Sometimes, the situation looks less promising or more dangerous than expected, so the terrorists scrub the mission. The whole process takes at least several weeks, usually longer.
The two World Trade Center attacks, of course, each required years to plan and execute. Naturally, right after 9/11, many Americans were worried about follow-up attacks. However, unless these attacks had been planned long in advance in conjunction with 9/11, they weren't going to happen--and they didn't.
The Geneva Conventions were written, of course, with conventional war in mind. However, the "ticking bomb" standard applies more to conventional conflicts like World War II or the Korean War than to terrorism.
During the Battle of the Bulge, American GIs regularly captured prisoners. The stakes were high: if the Germany army had broken through in the Ardennes forest and made it all the way to Antwerp, the entire Allied war effort would have been thrown off-track. US troops were surrounded in Bastogne, and American soldiers were dying every day in the battle. English-speaking German commandos, dressed in American uniforms, were causing confusion behind enemy lines, changing road signs, re-directing traffic, and spreading misinformation.
Every German soldier captured potentially had information that could save lives at that very moment. How many troops did the Germans have? How short were they on fuel? Where were their supply depots? What orders did each unit have? How many commandos were operating behind US lines, and how could they be identified?
Every answer received could save lives. However, the Geneva Conventions rightly condemn the mistreatment of enemy prisoners, from al Qaeda to the German SS, precisely at a moment like the Battle of the Bulge. That's when bombs are not only ticking, but exploding all around you.
Postscript: In the Battle of the Bulge, 19,000 Americans died. On 9/11, nearly 3.000 Americans and citizens of other countries died. The casualty statistics aren't the entire story, obviously, but they do help gain perspective.