>> 22 December 2008
In his powerful post, my colleague Ross Douthat explores what torture means, and whether we can sustain a clear boundary between torture and "torture-lite." Here's how I tackle that thorny question, after exploring it for many years. Focusing on techniques can be misleading. What it tends to do is make longer, less immediate forms of torture more acceptable than, say, pulling out the finger-nails or electrocuting testicles. But as I've been forced to discover over these past few gut-wrenching years, the torture created by freezing someone to near death or heating them to near-insanity or stretching their limbs day after day or depriving them of any real sleep for months on end is no less torture than the comic book Jack Bauer variety. In fact, if you read accounts of torture in the Soviet gulag or the Gestapo's "Third Degree", you find that the torture that left no physical scars was in some ways worse. Raping an individual's soul and mind through a war of attrition against their body and humanity can be achieved in many ways. Ask John McCain or Menachem Begin, two men who are neither liberal wimps nor pacifists.
Our enemies are human beings. They are never utterly evil; and we are never utterly good. Forgetting this truth is to dance with the devil in ways Americans very rarely have. Throwing out the rule of law or, worse, just rewriting it with hired legal guns to make a mockery of its plain meaning, is to throw out our own protection against the devil as well, when he comes to get us. And if we do not believe that the power to torture, to wield this kind of total power over other individuals, can warp a mind and destroy a soul, we are ignoring history.
Yes, as Ross argues, we live in a fallen world. If Americans want to continue to exercize the kind of hegemony they seem to want over the world, American hands will never be completely clean. We will have to deal with governments that do evil things and sometimes we will be forced to acquiesce to them. The American government has indeed dealt with torturing regimes in the past and has assessed "intelligence" from torture sessions conducted by allies (the Jordanians spring to mind). I follow Niebuhr in understanding that there is no pure path in a world where Jihadism lurks.
But to import the evil of torture into the American system itself is something else. It is to import a swiftly metastasizing cancer. It corrupts the rule of law from within, it destroys reliable evidence and intelligence, it is never fully accountable to anything but itself. People wonder why Dick Cheney seems to have changed in these years. How could someone who has authorized what he has authorized not have changed? The power to torture warps the torturer as much as the tortured. It belongs to the universe of power, not freedom, of dark, not light. We will not advance freedom if we enbrace it - and we have not advanced freedom by embracing it. We have in fact advanced what we are fighting.
An accounting for this cancer will not be pretty or easy. Chemotherapy never is. But without it, the American idea will die. That much I know.