In Defense Of Torture

Reuel Marc Gerecht responds to my postings yesterday:

I take it from your post that if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation's security, you would not have used any physically coercive techniques against the gentleman?  Okay, but I do believe that moral men can go the other way, and I strongly suspect that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans elected or appointed to high office would go the other way.   

I don't think fleeing the Middle East, an idea whose popularity will surely grow among Republicans and Democrats as Afghanistan and Pakistan test our mettle much more than Iraq did, will exempt us from such scenarios since holy warriors came after us long before we were in Mesopotamia and Central Asia.  The Clinton Administration started rendering folks when the "peace process" was in full bloom.  Not many, of course.  This was pre-9/11.  But I would be willing to bet large quantities of money that if Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000, he would have continued and accelerated the program begun by Bill Clinton, as did Bush. 

The Europeans in Afghanistan have a unspoken agreement to render all al-Qa'ida suspects to the Americans.  They do this not because the Americans demand it; they do it because they know that they don't want to be responsible for interrogations and what to do afterwards.  Not particularly brave, but quite understandable.  Although your posting seems to be just a tous-azimuts venting of indignation, and not a particularly thoughtful critique, I would like to underscore two little datums:  the Jordanians do torture, my essay clearly lets the reader know this, and the Clinton and Bush Administrations were fibbing about the regime's behavior when they sent folks to the Hashemite Kingdom.   And I don't believe Senator McCain opposed or opposes the CIA having a somewhat different charter when it comes to the interrogation of holy warriors. This point often got lost in the campaign, in part because people on his own side would blur the distinction.

As I've written before, I'm strongly opposed to rendition. Would that the Clinton and the Bush administrationsespecially the Bush administrationhad started a public discussion of what we do with holy warriors who live to slaughter thousands. No senior Democratic or Republican senator or congressman could have then winked their approval of the CIA's special methods (as they most definitely did).  If Bush had done this in 2001 or 2002 or even 2003, we would have all been much better off.  You might not like what America's legislature would have decided (Andrew, what was your position on this in 2001/2002?), but it would have carried the approval of more of the American people's representatives.  Would that there had been more essays earlier like those done by the Atlantic's Mark Bowden in the Philadelphia Enquirer in December 2007easily the most thoughtful discussion of waterboarding printed anywhere.

If these things had happened, we would surely not have such an Orwellian discussion of this issue today, and good and decent men would be more careful with their language.   There is a Bodleian Library’s worth of difference between Americans who must choose ugly means to defend themselves against men who live to massively slaughter civilians and the Gestapo and Chekists. The Bush administration, despite  its many terrible mistakes, didn’t open the doors to hell, or make Americans more savage or less moral. (As a people, we were much more brutal in war sixty-five years ago than we are today, the sins of Abu Ghurayb included.) 

If Americans again ever waterboard someone, and we can all hope that doesn’t happen, it will no doubt be because our elected representatives have decided that such an ugly but defensible act is required to save Americans from another 9/11. That is an unlikely contingency now, in part because of the counter-terrorist successes of the Bush administration and our allies.  (The line that the President-elect used, at least for awhile during the campaign, that “we are less safe” was just silly.)

For the record, my position on torture has always been the same and was unaffected by 9/11. It is illegal, immoral and counter-productive. I believe we are less safe because of it, and Reuel has produced no evidence to the contrary. I am grateful, however, for an honest defense of the practice and of its incorporation within the American constitution. It would alter the meaning of America for ever. But better that be done in public, under an amended law, than by an unaccountable executive answerable only to elections every four years - and able to torture in order to procure evidence to defend more torture.