Two weeks ago, in this column, I suggested that Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, would have difficulty wooing conservatives because of his "anti-torture positions." Commentator Andrew Sullivan immediately pounced on my phraseology: "Good to see plain English being used on the right. Pity the use of torture is now a plus for some in the Republican primaries. But, hey, that's what American conservatism now stands for."
Sullivan is perhaps the leading proponent of a blanket ban on torture of terrorist detainees. In an article he wrote for The New Republic back in December 2005, he elucidates his position. "Torture is the polar opposite of freedom," he states. To this platitude he adds that the development of Western civilization is a progression from torture to freedom; that if we turn our enemies into monsters to justify torturing them, we will dramatically increase the amount of torture we inflict generally; that we blur the line between our own values and those of the terrorists we fight and, in doing so, alienate potential allies in the Muslim world.
These are not empty arguments. Nevertheless, they remain unconvincing. No one doubts that arbitrary torture is wrong. Were we to pull random American citizens from their homes and drag them into a cell for a bit of waterboarding, we would undoubtedly be destroying our own moral fiber and discrediting our history. We would be no better than the Islamists we fight. But there is a fundamental difference between our treatment of non-citizens and our treatment of citizens. There is a fundamental difference between how we treat our friends and how we treat our enemies.
What distinguishes us from our enemies is not how we treat our enemies, but what we fight to ensure for our friends. We seek to make the world a freer place, a safer place. We fight against the jackboots arriving in the night to steal away religious or political minorities. Our enemies seek to destroy us, and our way of life. They fight for the rape rooms, for the public beheadings, for the murder of religious and political minorities. They seek to make torture the rule, not the exception.
Western civilization, and American civilization in particular, is based on opposition to torture. But Western civilization has never been based on the idea that we must treat enemies of Western civilization with the same care we treat allies. Outsiders are not members of the social pact that guarantees them the rights insiders enjoy.