Torture Opponents Were Right

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They've long insisted that a "ticking time bomb" exception would set us on a slippery slope. The reaction to bin Laden's death proves their point

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Osama Bin Laden

Torture apologists claiming that the death of Osama bin Laden justifies America's use of "enhanced interrogation tactics" aren't just wrong on the merits -- the arguments they're offering are proof that carving out even narrow exceptions for torture puts us on a morally corrosive slippery slope.

Think about it: back in 2003, 2004, and 2005, the mainstream argument for torture among its advocates was "the ticking time bomb scenario." Alan Dershowitz endorsed it. Charles Krauthammer did too. It played a recurring role in countless episodes of the hit television show 24. And it proved so core to the public case for "enhanced interrogation" that torture opponents like Michael Kinsley and Dahlia Lithwick focused their efforts on pushing back against the most talked about "exception" in the nation.

The return of the torture debate is striking because its apologists no longer feel the need to advocate for a narrow exception to prevent an American city from being nuked or a busload of children from dying. In the jubilation over getting bin Laden, they're instead employing this frightening standard: torture of multiple detainees is justified if it might produce a single useful nugget that, combined with lots of other intelligence, helps lead us to the secret location of the highest value terrorist leader many years later. It's suddenly the new baseline in our renewed national argument.

That's torture creep.

Ticking time bomb scenarios happen rarely, if ever. The price of obsessing over them, rather than seeing the wisdom in an outright ban? It's going from "torture rarely, if ever" to "torture whenever it might help kill Al Qaeda's leader in the distant future" in less than a decade. This is exactly what torture opponents predicted. Back in 2005, Cathy Young put it this way in Reason magazine:

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.

In just a few years, torture apologists have slipped a long way.

Image credit: Rick Wilking/Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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