A Rhetorical Analysis of Krauthammer’s “The Truth about Torture”


In “The Truth about Torture,” first published circa December 2005 in The Weekly Standard, syndicated columnist and conservative political commentator Charles Krauthammer argues for a concession to the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA). Introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the DTA effectively prohibited any and all forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of those in the custody of the United States (Krauthammer 1). However, Krauthammer asserts that, in “two very circumscribed circumstances”––(1) the ticking time bomb and (2) the slower-fuse high-value terrorist––exceptions to the McCain amendment’s no-torture dictum should be allowed (7). Throughout his essay, Krauthammer rarely makes use of pathos, since his target audience of government policymakers and The Weekly Standard’s readership––which consists of the elderly, affluent, and politically active––tend not to be receptive to arguments that cater to the tender-of-heart, preferring instead the educated, empirically permissible conclusions of men of logic and science.

To define the first of his two proposed exceptions, the ticking time bomb, Krauthammer presents his readership with a hypothetical situation: A nuclear bomb set to detonate before the hour is out is planted in the heart of New York City. It will kill and displace tens of millions. The responsible party, a terrorist and unlawful combatant, is captured. He refuses to talk. Should he be tortured to the greatest possible extent for the express purpose of extracting the bomb’s whereabouts? By presenting his readership with such an exaggerated situation, one whose response should be self-evident to any rational and compassionate individual, Krauthammer demonstrates that, yes, in certain instances, torture is permissible. This once, Krauthammer effectively uses pathos to rouse his American readership and unite them under a standard of human decency.

In anticipation of the criticism that would likely be leveled at him for his flagrant use of hyperbole, Krauthammer admits that, while the New York City scenario isn’t altogether likely, more common are similar instances where “terrorists . . . who have just [rigged] a car bomb . . . or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop” are captured (3). In such cases, christened ticking time bombs (hence the origin of the term Krauthammer appropriated) by the Israelis, the terrorists are often captured with only minutes to spare before the attack. Krauthammer argues that torture should be admissible, even in these more modest circumstances, if its use would save lives.

Krauthammer then explains the quandary that his second proposed exception to the McCain amendment, the slower-fuse high-value terrorist, presents. To do so, he references the detainment and controversial water boarding (a torture technique) of al Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) by U.S. operatives. Intimately involved in the logistics of most al-Qaeda operations, KSM knew “plans, identities, contacts, materials, cell locations, safe houses, cased targets, etc.” (Krauthammer 4) In short, he had a wealth of knowledge that could potentially derail al-Qaeda permanently. However, to extract that information, U.S. operatives understood that they’d have to torture him––in any case, something which they eventually did. Krauthammer argues that, unlike most who were outraged by the water boarding of KSM, he was reassured. He reasons that “[i]t would be a gross dereliction of duty for any government not to keep Khalid Sheikh Mohammed isolated, disoriented, alone, despairing, . . . in order to find out what he knew about plans for future mass murder.” (4) In this way, Krauthammer employs logos to persuade his readers that, contrary to the McCain amendment’s unconditional banning of the use of torture, such aggressive interrogation techniques should be allowed in the case of KSM or a similar terrorist with important information.

However, in both of the above exceptions that Krauthammer delineates, he makes an assumption that is inadequate. He assumes that, based on KSM’s failure to resist the water boarding for little more than two and a half minutes, other terrorists, determined though they are to ensure the success of their plans, will quickly fold under the strain of torture (6). Certainly, in ticking time bomb cases where every minute counts if terrorist attacks are to be prevented, the use of torture would be meaningless were Krauthammer’s assumption too optimistic. Instead, were Krauthammer to include relevant case studies or statistics of past torture sessions (e.g., of type of torture and corresponding effectiveness), he might be better able to lend weight to his presumption, thus clearing that discrepancy.

Krauthammer later lists a series of guidelines tailored to ensure that abuses such as those committed at Abu Ghraib never happen again. For instance, he proposes that, in the case of the slow-fuse high value terrorist, “the level of inhumanity of the measures used . . . be proportional to the need and value of the information.” (7) He also writes that:

    These exceptions [the ticking time bomb and slow-fuse high-value terrorist] to the no torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents . . . [who] would be required to obtain written permission . . . from the highest political authorities in the country (cabinet level) or from a quasi-judicial body modeled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (which permits what would ordinarily be illegal searches and seizures in the war on terror). (7)

Yet, because Krauthammer fails to give his readership a comprehensive blueprint for preventing abuse––something which, in any event, shouldn’t be expected of him––his half-measured stab at policymaking rings hollow. Had Krauthammer instead taken the extra step to consult with and quote someone knowledgable about the guidelines used in terrorist interrogations, his essay might have gained in credibility.

In arguing for the two exceptions to the McCain amendment’s “torture never” policy, Krauthammer remains adamant that under no circumstances should the torturing of terrorists amount to an act of revenge. In justifying his conviction, Krauthammer quotes from the Bible: “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” (7) This religious aphorism, starkly emotive in an essay reliant on sound reasoning, skillfully invokes the moral stature of a higher power that, though invisible, can terrify any God-fearing man, woman, or child into submission.

For all its flaws, Charles Krauthammer’s reasoning in his defense of torture is vigorous enough to convince an uneasy post-9/11 audience of the need to use torture in certain particular instances. Even Krauthammer’s attempt to compromise McCain’s sponsorship of the DTA by referring to the esteemed senator’s status as a former prisoner of war constitutes a ploy tailored to win over today’s traumatized public; by portraying McCain, tactfully, of course, as ridiculously iron-fisted about his morals, Krauthammer implies that the senator is blind to the realities of the day, an accusation that is certain to dismay a generation of Americans who watched as Marwan al-Shehhi flew United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. If, however, Krauthammer intends for his arguments to be sustainable in the long term (i.e., agreeable to future generations that never experienced 9/11 first-hand), he should seriously consider enriching his essay with more evidence to support his views and assumptions. Otherwise, his opinions on torture will remain a hard sell even to the more levelheaded and pragmatic segment of his readership.

Works Cited

Krauthammer, Charles. “The Truth about Torture: It’s time to be honest about doing terrible things.” The Weekly Standard. 5 Dec 2005. 27 Jan 2012. Retrieved from http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/400rhqav.asp

Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on July 14, 2013, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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