Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- By releasing the Justice Department memos on coercive interrogations, the Obama administration has produced an unintended effect: Revealing the context and care of these decisions has made them more understandable, not less.

I had come to view harsh interrogations as a clear mistake. The war on terror is as much an ideological conflict as a military one, and the combination of Abu Ghraib and revelations about waterboarding had the practical effect of a battle lost. And I worried that these techniques might lead to a dehumanized view of the enemy -- always a risk in a time of war -- thus greasing a slippery slope toward abuse.

But the Justice Department memos disclose a different sort of deliberation -- a government struggling with similar worries even after immense provocation; a government convinced that new attacks were imminent, but still weighing the rights of captured murderers, drawing boundaries to prevent permanent injury during questioning, well aware of the laws regarding torture and determined not to violate them.

Historically, did America ever give such exhaustive consideration to the rights of children incinerated during the firebombing of Dresden? Or to the long-term mental and physical health of the elderly of Hiroshima? Even the most questionable techniques employed in the war on terror bear no comparison to methods common in past American wars.

The Justice Department memos raise a question: Can coercive interrogation ever be justified? Few Americans would object to the slapping of a terrorist during questioning, for example, if this yielded important intelligence. The coercion would be minimal; the goal of saving lives, overriding. Few Americans, on the other hand, would support pressuring a terrorist by torturing his child. Such a heinous act could not be justified in pursuit of an inherently uncertain outcome -- securing information that may or may not prevent greater loss of life.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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