That's the only clear inference one can draw from Charles Krauthammer's latest column in defense of the indefensible. Back in 2005, in an influential essay that helped move the US into the ranks of torture states, he wrote:

Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking. Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

In 2009, the scenario has evolved into this:

The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy.

Wow. We've gone from justifying torture in order to prevent nuclear holocaust all the way to justifying it for merely saving one innocent person's life. Notice also that all that is required to torture is "the slightest belief" that the torture victim has useful information. This exception is therefore not an exception. It's a rule, allowing anyone in government with any scintilla of a suspicion that a captive has information that could save lives to torture or abuse him.


And as Krauthammer was writing his first essay, his friends in the Bush administration were indeed constructing a permanent government program to torture suspects routinely to gather information - something that even the Nazis didn't do systematically, in coordinated centralized fashion, according to Darius Rejali.

Moreover, nothing below the level of waterboarding qualifies as torture. Krauthammer has to engage in some selectivity to avoid seeming absurd, so we get this harrumph:

To call some of the other "enhanced interrogation" techniques -- face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space -- torture is to empty the word of any meaning.

No, it isn't, as the long history of torture and abuse will reveal to anyone open to the evidence. What John McCain endured - excruciating long-term stress positions, for example - is torture, and the US has done it to captives. Maybe Krauthammer would take Menachem Begin's word on how sleep deprivation is indeed torture, as he experienced it under the Soviets. But the brusque dismissal of hypothermia, extreme heat, stress positions, and the like as non-torture is a sign of intellectual insecurity, not confidence. And it's an argument that McCain was not tortured (which is, of course, the repulsive current neocon orthodoxy).

The idea that Krauthammer's is an argument against the use of torture is therefore preposterous. It is an argument for the embrace of torture and abuse whenever the executive branch wants to use it, against anyone it deems likely to cough up information. There is not a scintilla of distrust of executive power in either essay, which reveals the radically unconservative vision that underlies the torture state. And the moral outrage used to make his argument seem less monstrous is mitigated by the rather obvious fact that, by the logic of Krauthammer, nothing that happened at Abu Ghraib was morally or legally awry (except the murder-by-torture of one prisoner). All the other techniques - ordered and authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney - were used against possible insurgents with possible real information that could have possibly saved the lives of American soldiers. Given his arguments, how does Krauthammer object to anything that was done there? Or is his response that it was amateurish and the real torturers and abusers don't take photos? Or that only Lynndie England is vulnerable to sadism? He can't possibly object to the cruelty in principle - just the fact that it slipped into the public domain. The screams of the tortured should be reserved for a few elite ears.

And no one can possibly doubt that a policy along the lines Krauthammer wants is a clear, ongoing violation of domestic law, the Geneva Conventions' Article 3, and the UN Convention on Torture. So when will Krauthammer formally argue that the US should withdraw form these international and obligations? If we are to follow his advice in turning the US into a state that routinely abuses prisoners in the war on terror and tortures them at will, then we have no choice.

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