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Sheldon Filger Headshot

Does Torture Work? Ask the Nazis Who Interrogated Noor Khan

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney is on a mission. He has taken to the airwaves, seeking to repair the tarnished legacy that belongs to him and George W. Bush. With the U.S. economy in free fall collapse due in large measure to the catastrophic fiscal policies of the late Bush-Cheney administration, the former Vice President has chosen a rationale that is far removed from the realm of economics. In the perverse logic that only Mr. Cheney seems capable of, he is claiming that his legacy should be revered because he and the 43rd U.S. president were willing to use torture in the so-called war against terrorism, what he and his supporters euphemistically refer to as "enhanced interrogation techniques." The essence of Dick Cheney's argument is that the ends justify the means, the rationalization favored by tyrannies since time immemorial.

Torture works, says Dick Cheney. Unquestionably, torture is very effective in obtaining false confessions. The Spanish Inquisition and the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s are among a rogue's gallery of evidence that these "enhanced interrogation techniques" will force most people to admit to virtually anything. Stalin's secret police chief, Beria, once boasted, "give me a man for 24 hours and I'll have him confessing he is the King of England."

But as a useful tool for obtaining accurate, vital information, is torture truly efficacious? Dick Cheney, the man who obtained 5 draft deferments during the Vietnam War, is not, in my view, the most authentic judge on this matter. Let us look to the Third Reich, which made use of torture against those it deemed as "security threats" without the least restraint. In particular, we should recall the case of Noor Inayat Khan.

A young Muslim woman, Noor Khan was a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last Mogul Emperor of Southern India. After her family relocated to France, she studied at the Sorbonne, and became a musician and author of children's books. A petite and fragile woman, she was brought up in the Sufi tradition of pacifism, and by all accounts was as gentle and kindly a soul as could be. When the Nazis invaded and occupied France in 1940, Ms. Khan and her family escaped to England.

Though a pacifist, Noor was deeply affected by the occupation of her adopted homeland, and the anti-Semitic bestiality of the Nazis. She became convinced that it was her duty to fight the Nazis, even at the cost of her own life. She volunteered for service with the Special Operations Executive of British intelligence, where she was trained as a radio operator. In 1943 she was flown into France, where for four months she was the principal radio liaison between the French Resistance and the SOE, until she was betrayed to the Nazis. In November 1943 she was transported to the notorious Pforzheim prison in Germany, where she endured ten months of sheer hell.

Physically and psychologically, Noor Khan was subjected to the ultimate form of Cheney's "enhanced interrogation techniques." The Gestapo was determined to break her, and compel her to reveal every piece of vital information she possessed. To begin with, Noor Khan was placed in solitary confinement on a starvation diet, chained hand and foot, and frequently denied even a scrap of clothing. She was subjected to barbaric beatings and water torture, and that was only the beginning. Survivors of Pforzheim recall often hearing her cries of agony, as Noor was subjected to all the refinements created by man's capacity for inventive inhumanity. The Nazis would subject their most recalcitrant security prisoners to having their bodies suspended until their joints were dislocated, piercing and burning their flesh, ripping out fingernails and crushing the digits of their hands. Female prisoners, in particular, were subjected to electric shocks being applied to the most sensitive regions of their bodies. What Noor endured during those ten months at Pforzheim can scarcely be imagined. It must have been beyond human endurance. Yet this cultured, delicate woman endured the unendurable. She never broke. Noor Khan would not even reveal to the Nazis her true identity. Finally, her captors admitted defeat and sent Noor to her final destination on earth, Dachau concentration camp.

On September 13, 1944, in front of other prisoners who witnessed her final hours, Noor Khan was stripped naked and then savagely beaten by SS guards at Dachau. A pistol was pointed at her head. Before the trigger was pulled, Noor's last word ever to be uttered was overheard: "Liberty."

The life of Noor Inayat Khan does not prove that torture does not work. What her martyrdom does demonstrate is that torture is only effective when all understanding of the concept of liberty is lost to a nation.