In defense of torture

Ross gives us a fairly thoughtful untangling of his complicated feelings about torture. If I may, I'd quibble with one point. Ross puts Bush's torture advocacy in historical perspective, correctly point out that while torture may be a betrayal of American ideals, it actually isn't a betrayal of America's actual political tradition:

For instance: The use of the atomic bomb. I think it's very, very difficult to justify Harry Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in any kind of plausible just-war framework, and if that's the case then the nuclear destruction of two Japanese cities - and indeed, the tactics employed in our bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan more broadly - represents a "war crime" that makes Abu Ghraib look like a trip to Pleasure Island. (And this obviously has implications for the justice of our entire Cold War nuclear posture as well.) But in so thinking, I also have to agree with Richard Frank's argument that "it is hard to imagine anyone who could have been president at the time (a spectrum that includes FDR, Henry Wallace, William O. Douglas, Harry Truman, and Thomas Dewey) failing to authorize use of the atomic bombs" - in so small part because I find it hard to imagine myself being in Truman's shoes and deciding the matter differently, my beliefs about just-war principle notwithstanding.

He then continues:

The same difficulty obtains where certain forms of torture are concerned. If I find it hard to condemn Harry Truman for incinerating tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, even though I think his decision probably violated the moral framework that should govern the conduct of war, I certainly find it hard to condemn the waterboarding of, say, a Khalid Sheikh Muhammed in the aftermath of an event like 9/11, and with more such attacks presumably in the planning stages.

I think this is a bait and switch.  Ross's point that he can't imagine himself doing anything different than Truman, doesn't really exonerate Truman, basically because neither Ross--nor I--would ever be president. I'd argue that a leaders are not simply supposed to be carbon-copy representatives of our emotions, but that they're supposed to see more, they are supposed to be better than. Asking ourselves what we would do, were we in Bush's shoes is likely to only prove that we'd be very mediocre presidents.

Much stronger is Ross's point  that basically anyone other potential president in Truman's shoes  would have done the same thing as Truman. But you simply can't make the same argument about Bush. Indeed, it's not even clear that every potential Republican president would have approved of water-boarding. I think you can fairly argue that Truman was in something of a historical--if not moral--bind. Some people will argue that Bush was also. But for the point Ross makes about Truman to be true of Bush, he would need to prove that Al Gore, and even John McCain, a torture victim himself, would have approved of water-boarding.

I'd love to see that proof.