When confronted with the assertion that the Soviet Union and the United States were moral equivalents, William F. Buckley responded that if one man pushes an old lady into an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, we should not denounce them both as men who push old ladies around.
In other words, context matters.
Not according to some. Led by Time magazine's Andrew Sullivan, opponents of the CIA's harsh treatment of high-value terrorists have grown comfortable comparing Bush's America to, among other evils, Stalin's Russia.
The tactic hasn't worked, partly because many decent Americans understand that abuse intended to foil a murder plot is not the same as torturing political dissidents, religious minorities and other prisoners of conscience. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was not asked to renounce his faith or sign a false confession when he was reportedly waterboarded. His suffering wasn't intended as a form of punishment. The sole aim was to stop an ongoing murder conspiracy, which is what al-Qaida is. If accounts from such unbiased sources as ABC News' Brian Ross are to be believed, his suffering saved American lives.
Comparing CIA facilities to Stalin's gulag may sound righteous, but it is a species of the same moral relativism that denounces all pushers of old ladies equally.
Consider killing. In every society in the world, murder is punished more harshly than non-lethal torture. If I waterboard you, or lock you in my basement with Duran Duran blasting at you 24/7, even if I beat you for hours with a rubber hose, my punishment will be less severe than if I murder you, simply because it is worse to take a life deliberately than to cause pain, even sadistically. We all understand this. Would you rather take some lumps in a dungeon for a month, or take a dirt nap forever?
Yet, according to the torture prohibitionists, there must be a complete ban on anything that even looks like torture, regardless of context, even though we'd never dream of a blanket ban on killing.
One reason for this disconnect is that we've thought a lot about killing and barely at all about torture. Almost no one opposes killing in all circumstances; wars sometimes need to be fought, the hopelessly suffering may require relief, we reserve the right to self-defense. Indeed, the law recognizes a host of nuances when it comes to homicide, and the place where everybody draws an unambiguous line on killing is at something we call "murder."
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