IT IS A shocking sign of the times that we are having a debate about the appropriateness of torture. Some would say that it's a sign of our democracy's moral decline; others, of the desperate times that have driven us to desperate measures. Either way, those of us who do not want the free world to lose its soul to terrorism must stand up and be counted.
Credible reports that detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq have been abused in US custody have generated widespread outrage, as have revelations that the White House and the Justice Department had authorized ''coercive interrogation" techniques -- some of which are widely regarded as forms of torture -- for some prisoners held by the CIA. Senator John McCain has spearheaded an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill banning ''cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" of prisoners by any US personnel. In October, the Republican-controlled Senate passed this amendment by a vote of 90-9. The Bush administration, meanwhile, insists that it does not authorize torture -- even as it seeks to block the McCain legislation. The issue has bitterly divided conservatives.
It is said, rightly, that torture degrades both its victims and its perpetrators. The debate has also degraded the moral caliber of discourse among supporters of the war on terror. Outrageously, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has argued that such techniques as exposure to extreme heat or cold, or ''waterboarding" (which induces a drowning sensation) are not torture but merely ''psychological techniques."
A much more thoughtful ''antiantitorture" argument is made by Charles Krauthammer in The Weekly Standard. Krauthammer agrees that torture is ''terrible and monstrous," and he does not deny that such practices as ''waterboarding" are torture. But he also asserts that some forms of this monstrous thing must remain permissible in extreme cases: the ''ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a captured terrorist knows the location of a bomb that could kill thousands; and the high-level terrorist who possesses a treasure trove of information about the terror network and its plots.
Yet the ''ticking time bomb" scenario is not only extremely improbable, it's also one in which torture is most likely to be useless. If the terrorist knows the bomb will go off in two hours, all he has to do is stall by giving false information until it does go off. And with high-level terrorists, psychological manipulation may prove much more effective in extracting accurate information than physical suffering.
McCain has cited Israel as a model of fighting terror without resorting to torture: Physical coercion in interrogations was banned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999. Krauthammer disagrees, pointing out that since the start of the second Palestinian uprising, coercive tactics toward detainees in Israel have been commonly used under the radar, with widespread acceptance from the public.
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Krauthammer also that notes McCain's opposition is not as absolutist as he makes it out to be. The senator has said that in a ''ticking time bomb" emergency, the president may be able to authorize the use of illegal techniques. Legal experts also believe the ban on ''cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment may allow the harshness of interrogation methods to be calibrated to the urgency of the situation. Krauthammer concludes that McCain's uncompromising stance is partly for show. He urges us to abandon ''moral preening" and honestly admit that sometimes, ''we must all be prepared to torture."
Yet what good will such honesty accomplish? Yes, a ''no torture" stance is likely to be qualified with tacit acknowledgment that, under narrow and extreme circumstances, the rules may be bent. That seems vastly preferable to open endorsement of torture. If we start with a ''thou shalt not torture" absolute, we are likely to be vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there's no telling how low we're going to go on that slippery slope.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.