Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States took drastic measures in its so‑called “War on Terror.” Civil liberties were suspended and international conventions were disregarded. In this article, the authors Rita Siemion and Adam Jacobson show that while this harsh, action-oriented strategy was effective PR in so far as it suggested the government’s capacity to act was not in any way diminished, it proved ineffective and in some respects even counterproductive in terms of achieving counterterrorism goals.
Siemion and Jacobson criticize not only the application of the law of war detention by the U.S. government to terror suspects, but also their mistreatment and torture, and the use of drones in foreign territory. Supported by findings from research and practice, the authors fundamentally question the effectiveness of torture. Physical attacks are demonstrably not a suitable way of obtaining valid statements. Torture has a direct effect on victims’ memory; they will give false confessions because they want their torment to end. The authors cite confirmed cases where false statements by torture victims misled the law enforcement agencies. Time and manpower could have been better spent elsewhere.
Siemion and Jacobson also take a critical view of the targeted killing of suspects via remote-controlled drones. Security experts complain that vital knowledge about terrorist activities is wiped out in these killings.
At the same time, blind actionism has wrought massive damage at the political level. The United States lost the trust of its allies and played into the enemy’s hands. Extremist organizations like Al Qaeda seize upon rights violations and exploit them for their anti-Western propaganda. The consequences are disastrous. Reports of torture and drone attacks with civilian casualties motivate others to join the extremists. Local alliance partners distance themselves from the United States, whose own credibility as a state under the rule of law has been harmed. The U.S. government is losing legitimacy as an international advocate of human rights.