Remember the "third degree"? It used to be the standard way many police departments in this country extracted confessions from criminal suspects. The practice was sharply diminished after the 1931 Wickersham Report prepared by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, which found that the "'third degree' -- the infliction of physical or mental pain to extract confessions or statements -- was 'widespread throughout the country' and was 'thoroughly at home in Chicago.'"

The methods identified in the Report "range from beating to harsher forms of torture. The commoner forms are beating with the fists or some implement, especially the rubber hose, that inflicts pain, but is not likely to leave permanent visible scars ... authorities often threaten bodily injury ... and have gone to the extreme of procuring a confession at the point of a pistol.'" It further found that the practice of police torture in the United States was "shocking in its character and extent, violative of American traditions and institutions, and not to be tolerated."

So the third degree gave way to the jailhouse snitch and other resources developed by the police to clinch their cases.

The torture issue has been hanging around now for a month or so, as noisome as a nineteenth century London fog. Open the Nov. 5 edition of Newsweek, and there is Jonathan Alter, munching on the week's hot topic, namely: Should the FBI torture obdurate Sept. 11 suspects in the Bureau's custody here in the United States? Alter's tone was lightly facetious, as in "Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?"

As so often with unappealing labor, Alter arrived at the usual American solution -- outsource the job: "We'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies."

What's striking about Alter's commentary and others writing in the same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about the subject of torture, but Alter manages it.

Would one know from his commentary that under international covenants torture is illegal? One would not, and one assumes that Alter regards the issue as entirely immaterial. Would one know that in recent years the United States has been charged by the UN, and also by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, as tolerating torture in prisons in many states, by methods ranging from solitary, 23-hour-a-day confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating 50,000 volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by a prisoner?

Alter expresses a partiality for "truth drugs," an enthusiasm shared by the U.S. Navy after the war against Hitler, when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr. Kurt Plotner's research into "truth serums" at Dachau. Plotner gave Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then observed their behavior, in which they expressed hatred for their guards and made confessional statements about their own psychological makeup. The Navy's interest was anticipated by the OSS, which developed a THC-based truth serum of its own in its labs in St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The serum was tried without any success on scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

Start torturing, and it's easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it. What about Israel, which called an official halt to torture in 1999? They're still torturing. In July, AP and the Baltimore Sun relayed charges from the Israeli human rights organization Beth T'selem of "severe torture" by police of Palestinian youths as young as 14, who were badly beaten, their heads shoved into toilet bowls and so forth.

But Israel subcontracted, too. When Israel finally retreated from its "security strip" in southern Lebanon, run by its puppet South Lebanese Army, the journalist Robert Fisk visited Khiam prison. His report for The Independent, May 25, 2000, began thus: "The torturers had just left, but the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads for the little dynamo -- the machine mercifully taken off to Israel by the interrogators -- which had the inmates shrieking with pain when the electrodes touched their fingers or penises. And there were the handcuffs, which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday afternoon. Engraved into the steel were the words: 'The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA.' And I wondered, in Israel's most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles."

If those handcuffs are sold these days to the FBI's subcontractor of choice, at least the executives will know they have Jonathan Alter to explain the patriotic morality of their bottom line. But at least Alter is only a pundit. For now, the line from the U.S. Justice Department is superior in moral fiber. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told Ted Koppel recently: "We don't want anyone to be subjected to interrogation that would violate their rights. And I mean by that, we don't want to extort any kind of confession. We don't believe extorted confessions are reliable ... We don't engage in those kinds of practices. As a matter of fact, if I were to learn that so -- those kinds of practices had been undertaken -- and I have had no report of that -- I would be very distressed, and I would take action."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.