The Big Idea

Coerced Confessions

What do Don Imus, David Hicks, and the 15 British sailors have in common?

Today’s news quiz: What do the Australian-born Taliban fighter David Hicks, the embattled American talk-show host Don Imus, and the British sailors released last week by the Iranian government all have in common?

This isn’t a hard one if you’ve been following these stories. All of these people have been in the news lately apologizing for their actions. The twist is that they all issued their confessions under some form of apparent duress—physical, emotional, or financial—that serves to undermine their credibility. In each case, the implication that pivotal statements were in various ways coerced leaves us wondering whether to believe the speakers now, then, or ever.

David Hicks

David Hicks, the former kangaroo skinner captured in 2001 with al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, offered his confession in the form of an agreement with military prosecutors. Hicks was the first detainee at Guantanamo Bay to be charged under the new military commissions law passed by Congress last year. With his guilty plea, Hicks retracted his previous allegations of abuse at the hands of the American military, agreed not to speak to the media for a year, not to sue the U.S. government for mistreatment, and not to profit from selling his life story. In a statement read by his lawyer in court, Hicks thanked American service members for their professionalism and apologized to the United States for his actions.

Shrewd analysts have declined to take this confession at face value. Hicks, who has been at Guantanamo for more than five years, was facing a life sentence for lending material support to terrorism. As a result of the deal, he will serve only nine months in an Australian prison before being released. If you doubt the word of the Bush administration, you may tend to credit Hicks’ earlier claims of torture and mistreatment and regard the coercion he was under—the threat of a long sentence—as a reason to doubt the sincerity of his statement. The military prosecutor’s insistence on a gag order only increases the suspicion that when Hicks says he was lying, he’s probably lying now.

British hostages

If apologizing to the Pentagon provokes skepticism, apologizing to Iran’s Shiacrats prompts outright disbelief. Before the 15 British detainees were set free last week, the Iranian government released three letters written by Faye Turney, the only woman in the group, in which she said that the sailors were at fault, denounced the Bush and Blair governments, and asserted that she and her colleagues were being treated well by their captors. Even those who have been critical of the sailors’ behavior in captivity assumed that this and other declarations of guilt were the result of intimidation or threats by the Iranian captors. This is the same defense offered by the sailors since they returned to Britain. “I never meant a word of it,” Turney said of her letters in her first interview after arriving home.

Nor did Don Imus groveling on Al Sharpton’s radio show look like a man speaking his mind freely. Imus wants the country to accept his apology for trespassing a recognized boundary of decency with a riff last week in which he called a team of black women basketball players “nappy-headed hos.”* He hopes that saying he’s terribly sorry will release him from threats of boycott and cancellation of his program.

Don Imus

Here the coercion factor works against, rather than in favor of, the prisoner’s current wish to be believed. Imus’ motive for saying what he’s saying now is too obvious for anyone other than regular guests and the book publishers who love him to accept that he didn’t mean a word of it. But as in the other cases, the facile assumption that coercion equals deceit may tell us more about our political views than where the truth really lies. If you think racism is pervasive and ineradicable, you almost certainly think Imus embodies it. If you like his brand of humor, you may be inclined to dismiss his comments as a shock jock’s taste transgression rather than evidence of inveterate bigotry.

Similarly with David Hicks, those focused on American misdeeds aren’t likely to believe him now. But bear in mind that his earlier allegations about mistreatment at American hands, including that he was offered the services of a prostitute if he cooperated in spying on other inmates and that he was sexually abused Abner Louima-style, seem far-fetched. Hicks had a motive for lying then, too—to help fellow al-Qaida members make propaganda against the Americans. Why would he change his tune after all this time? Perhaps because according to one account by a former fellow inmate, Hicks ceased to be a Muslim at Guantanamo and fell out with others in his cellblock. Life would be simpler if we could believe that torture and the heavier forms of coercion never work. In fact they sometimes elicit the truth and sometimes don’t. Those of us who oppose the use of torture can’t shortcut the argument. We have to draw our lines on moral grounds, not just practical ones.

As for the British sailors, they may have confessed without meaning it in Iran, but they look to be saying what’s in their interests again now. The sailors are busy trying to defend themselves from charges that they let their military discipline break down and that they embarrassed their country. And in some cases, they also had a financial motive to develop a dramatic story around their forced confession, Fay Turney reportedly being paid nearly $200,000 to cooperate in her exoneration by Britain’s largest tabloid. That’s an even harder gift to refuse than a bag of pistachio nuts.

Correction, April 11, 2007: This column originally stated that Don Imus referred to black women basketball players as “jigaboos.” In fact it was Imus’ producer Bernard McGuirk who used that term on the program.  (Return  to the corrected sentence.)