This Torturous Debate

David Harsanyi

4/24/2009 12:00:00 AM - David Harsanyi

Like many Americans, I abhor the notion of the United States' using torture to extract information. But unlike many Americans, I lack the deep moral certitude to believe that my position is logically or morally unassailable.

The question of torture is as unpleasant as it is complicated. It deserves far deeper meditation and far fewer absolutes.

What if the torture of a terrorist saved American lives, for instance? It's certainly a reasonable question -- even if it doesn't alter your position on the issue.

Dennis Blair, President Barack Obama's director of national intelligence, wrote in a memo to his staff this week, "High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaida organization that was attacking this country."

If your contention is that the outcome of torture is immaterial -- whether it's one life saved or a thousand lives -- you've taken a principled stand. I've yet to hear a policymaker who opposes "torture" be honest and take accountability for the potential consequences of abandoning harsh interrogation techniques.

I put the word "torture" in quotation marks only to acknowledge that I -- and many of you, I'm sure -- do not know exactly how to define it. Most laws offer thoroughly ambiguous definitions that can cover nearly any unpleasant interrogation.

As any parent can tell you, sleep deprivation is mentally torturous. Does it rise to the level of a crime? Waterboarding? OK, how about pushing someone against a wall? Scaring a grizzled terrorist with a caterpillar? Such techniques inflict "stress and duress," for sure, but do they "shock the conscience" (one definition offered for torture)?

When President Obama decided to release the "torture memos," the door was open for a mere debate. When he opened the door for the prosecution of lawyers who opined on what constitutes torture -- despite encouraging everyone not to spend "time and energy laying blame for the past" -- we face something far more important.

Many on the left see a perfect opportunity to investigate and prosecute Bush-Cheney and company. And if officials broke the law, they should pay the price. But why stop with them?

As Blair also noted, "From 2002 through 2006 when the use of these techniques ended, the leadership of the CIA repeatedly reported their activities both to Executive Branch policymakers and to members of Congress, and received permission to continue to use the techniques."

The Washington Post reported in 2007 that the CIA gave details of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to members of both parties. Did these legislators sign off on waterboarding? If so, why should they be immune from action? For that matter, why should interrogators who participated in illegal activities be immune -- as Obama has suggested?

Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Thursday that he is willing to release as much information as possible about the interrogations. That's good news because it hasn't happened yet.

More transparency -- and less moral preening -- would be a nice start. We ought to know the full extent of torture -- its consequences, its effectiveness and its specific results. If not, the entire memo scandal will just stink of political hackery and payback.

Don't misunderstand me. I doubt you will change your mind on the issue. I doubt I will. The thought of granting government the power and responsibility to secretly torture, especially when it already spends billions of dollars to supposedly keep us safe, is a thought I can't stomach.

But to pretend that all harsh interrogation techniques are created equal -- or that eliminating those techniques is devoid of consequences -- is just dishonest.