Ben Wittes ups the Orwellian ante:

Detainees who pose a grave national security threat might be unprosecutable for a variety of reasons: because of deficiencies in the criminal law as it stood in 2001, because evidence against them would not stand up in court, because the government might not have enough evidence to convict or because it obtained key evidence under coercive conditions.

"Under coercive conditions". Excuse me, but what does that mean in English? Try: Because they got intelligence from torturing people. Coercion means force. It means they forced "information" out of them. Not coax, trick, lure, force. That means the victims had no choice. And the only way in which human beings can seriously have no choice at all is by subjecting them to such severe mental and physical pain and suffering that they have no option as human beings but to tell their torturers something.

This is the defining line of torture: not some arbitrary comic book technique, but a psychological and physical fact: pushing another human being to the point where choice becomes unavailable to him or her. You can do this in any number of ways; it can take

three seconds of electrocution or it can take two months of sleep deprivation, hypothermia and darkness. But the line it eventually crosses is the same line. Throughout human history, human beings have known what that line is, and the West was constructed on a disavowal of ever crossing it again. Why? Because a society that endorses torture commits itself not to limiting, but to extinguishing human freedom. And a protection of human freedom in its most minimal form is what our entire civilization is premised on.

Once that force is unleashed - and it is pure evil - it is almost impossible to stop it destroying your entire system of government. Maybe Europeans like me, who grew up in a land where torture was practiced by government widely in the distant past, and had that history dinned into us, understand this more acutely than those who have never known anything but a New World. But trust us Old Worlders passionate about the New: America and torture are mutually exclusive as ideas and realities. You can have one or the other. You cannot have both.

So when I read an American use the meaningless euphemism - "under coercive conditions" - as if force can be a condition that hovers in the air without anyone accountable for it, I shudder. When I read him tiptoe around what we are actually talking about, and express sympathy for those who tortured, illegally and secretly and against their oath of office, I shudder some more. Because we are numbing ourselves from moral responsibility and the only true protection we have from tyranny: the rule of law.

Even the word "torture" can be too vague and abstract a term. So let us state in plain English how Bush, Cheney, Tenet, et al. actually got information. They did it by subjecting prisoners to repeated drowning, or freezing, or heating, or sadistically long sleeplessness, or shackling or crucifying them until the pain could be borne no longer, or beating them until they pleaded for mercy, or threatening to kill or torture their children or wife or parents. Or all of the above in combination, in isolation, and with no surety of ever seeing the light of day again, with no right to meaningful due process of any kind, sometimes sealed off from light and sound for months at a time, or bombarded with indescribable noise day and night in cells from which there was no escape ever. This is what "under coercive conditions" actually means. It drove many of the victims into become mumbling, shaking, insane shells of human beings; it killed dozens; it drove others still to hunger strikes to try to kill themselves; and it terrified and scarred and "broke" the souls of many, many others. For what? Intelligence that cannot be trusted, and the loss of the sacred integrity of two centuries of American history. Did it save lives? We do not know. We do know that the people who are claiming it did have been unable to bring any serious case to justice based on their original claims, and are the people who are criminally responsible for the torture they have committed. Why would they not say it saved lives? And yet we have no other way to know. And we have the terrifying possibility that false information procured by torture provided a pretext to torture others in a self-perpetuating loop in which any ability to find out the actual truth is lost for ever. That, after all, is how some of the flawed intelligence that took us into Iraq was procured.

To paraphrase Hitch: torture poisons everything.

And people wonder why I seem so angry and concerned about this issue, about its centrality to this election, and about the unique, once-in-a-century chance to put it behind us before it infects us beyond cure. It is, in my judgment, the biggest single crisis we now face, because it does not simply affect our wealth or our safety, but because it affects who we are.

We cannot know hope until we end torture.

(Photo: a detainee killed by US forces in Abu Ghraib prison, after being beaten and forced into a position with his arms bent back over and behind his head, with a hood restricting his breathing. All the techniques used against him were authorized by president George W. Bush.)