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Published on June 22nd, 2009 | by Eli Clifton


Don’t Call Cliff May “Pro-Torture”

By Eli Clifton

Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is outraged that the New York Times website published a blog post stating that, “Cliff May argued that torture is justified against Muslims because they’re Muslim.”

The “slander(ous)” accusation that he supports torturing Muslims originates–as he is quick to point out–in a blog post by Adam Serwer on Tapped–the “group blog” of The American Prospect.

May summarized his email exchange with Mark Schmitt, editor of The American Prospect, in a June 18th article on the National Review Online.

Why, I asked Schmitt, “would your magazine print something like this about me?” I asked, too: “Are you oblivious to the possibility that telling such a lie will incite some crazy to attack me or my family?”

He replied: “We (and the Times) should have provided a link, but of course you know it was a reference to your much-discussed written comments on The Corner of April 24.”

I did not, but I looked up that post on The Corner and found that I had explicitly written that I oppose torture. I had thought to add, however, that I understood there would be those who will label as “pro-torture” anyone who dares argue that there “may be methods of interrogation that are unpleasant but fall short of torture.”

I went on to quote Abu Zubaydah, the captured al-Qaeda terrorist who, according to the CIA memos released by the Obama administration, told his interrogators: “Brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardships.”

This struck me as an important and potentially life-saving insight into the thinking of militant Islamists. “Imagine an al-Qaeda member who would like to give his interrogators information, who does not want to continue fighting, who would prefer not to see more innocent people slaughtered,” I wrote. “He would need his interrogators to press him hard so he can feel that he has met his religious obligations — only then could he cooperate.”

Indeed, May, in his April 24th post on The Corner–from which the accusation that he supports torture was drawn–makes the tired case that he is not in favor of torture but sees the need for “psychological and physical hardships” when interrogating “Islamists”.

May’s decision to use Abu Zubaydah as the poster child for “enhanced interrogation” is particularly strange considering that Zubaydah was quite possibly mentally ill and provided very little useful information once he was waterboarded and subjected to “enhanced interrogation”.

Nevertheless, the US government expended considerable resources tracking down phony leads provided by Zubaydah.

Ron Suskind examined the interrogation of Zubaydah in his book, The One Percent Doctrine.

On CNN’s Situation Room Suskind told Wolf Blitzer, “…essentially what happened is we tortured an insane man and jumped screaming at every word he uttered, most of them which were nonsense.”

Although May might be able to make an argument that he isn’t in favor of what former Justice Department attorney John Yoo would narrowly define as “torture” it does seem that he is borrowing some logic from the witch trials of the late 1600s.

In the witch trials–particularly those led by witch hunter Matthew Hopkins in the eastern counties of England–one of the “tests” administered to suspected witches was a swimming test. Women weighted down with rocks were thrown into lakes. If they floated they were a witch and subsequently hung or burned at the stake. If they sank and drowned they were cleared of the charges.

In his April 24th post, May wrote:

…(W)e now know that Islamists believe their religion forbids them to cooperate with infidels — until they have reached the limit of their ability to endure the hardships the infidel is inflicting on them. In other words: Imagine an al-Qaeda member who would like to give his interrogators information, who does not want continue fighting, who would prefer not to see more innocent people slaughtered. He would need his interrogators to press him hard so he can feel that he has met his religious obligations — only then could he cooperate.

May’s justification for exposing suspected terrorists to “psychological and physical hardships” is not so different from Hopkins’.

Witch hunters of the 17th century and Cliff May share the belief that the “special” qualities of others, justifies subjecting them to forms of physical torment which would be considered unacceptable in other circumstances. The “special” qualities of witches and “Islamists” requires that they be subjected to “physical and psychological hardship” in order to extract information, the truth, confessions etc…

For Hopkins, witches had a mysterious tendency to float. The collateral price was the death of innocent women.

For May, ‘Islamists’ might want to help authorities but can only do so if subjected to “physical and psychological hardship”. The collateral price is the occasional torture of some innocent people and a dangerous precedent of the US sanctioning interrogation techniques widely believed to be cruel and inhumane.

In both cases, the “special” and often dehumanizing qualities attributed to a victim were used as justification to commit acts that would be considered unacceptable were the victim not a witch or ‘Islamist’.

May doesn’t mention the potentially difficult situation faced if a suspect is subjected to “psychological and physical hardship” but isn’t guilty of participating in terrorist activities. Presumption of innocence doesn’t play a big role in May’s model for helping ‘Islamists’ cooperate with ‘infidels’ or in Hopkins’ method for determining the guilt of women accused of witchcraft.

But that doesn’t seem to be his area of concern. He’s far too busy trying to make sure that suspected terrorists’ “religious obligations” are met through “physical and psychological hardship”.

Perhaps Cliff May missed his calling by four-hundred years.

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2 Responses to Don’t Call Cliff May “Pro-Torture”

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  1. avatar Mark says:

    Clifford May is just upset that the Times canned him years ago after that incident. Since then, May has had to buff the shoes of John Podhoretz and Jonah Goldberg to keep getting a paycheck and May just hates spit-and-shine duty.

  2. avatar paul bass says:

    HA! that is basically the rape excuse of she wanted it!

    “He would need his interrogators to press him hard so he can feel that he has met his religious obligations — only then could he cooperate.”

    maybe we should make being tortured an obligation of citizenship for Muslims?
    but in some ways i think we all feel some need to resist that our good government should be able to free us of.

About the Author


Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.

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