By using torture to question the top terrorists it has in custody, the government has effectively sabotaged any future prosecutions of al-Qaida players—major and minor—that might depend on evidence gathered through those interrogations. It’s plausible that skilled interrogation by the FBI, in accordance with American law, could have produced valuable evidence of these terrorists’ guilt, which could have been used in court. But now that torture has been used, that may just be wishful hindsight.
As a nation, we still haven’t clearly decided whether it’s better to prosecute terrorists or pound them with artillery. But by torturing some of al-Qaida’s leaders, we have completely undermined any efforts to do the former and irreversibly committed ourselves to a martial plan of justice. In the long run, this may be counterproductive, and it will show that we have compromised such liberal, democratic ideals like adherence to the rule of law to counter terrorism.