"If it's December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America."
- Humphrey Bogart as Rick in "Casablanca"
Everybody knows there are certain moral principles engraved in stone: Thou Shalt Not Kill, for example. Except of course in self-defense. Or war. Or in other cases of justifiable homicide. Don't lie, either. Except of course when the Gestapo is knocking on the door looking for the neighbors you've hidden in the attic. And torture is bad. That should go without saying, which is why every high-minded editorial page in the country seems to be saying it, for they all seem to have a knack for pointing out the obvious: Torture bad.
Ah, but what's torture - short rations? Being hooded day and night? Solitary confinement? Where does torture begin, just after harassment and just before death? Today's favorite example, issue, and shibboleth: Waterboarding! Is it ever, ever permissible? Even if it's not, do we tell our enemies they need not fear it? Such are the questions now holding up the confirmation of an exceptionally well-qualified judge named Michael Mukasey as the next attorney general of the United States.
The judge refuses to break down and say the magic words - "I won't allow waterboarding" - no matter how hard he's pressed by that Senate committee. Why not? Maybe because he suspects that, after reciting that pledge, others will be required of him until, step by step, he finds himself in the position of poor, beleaguered and mentally outgunned Alberto Gonzales.
For as counsel to the president, Mr. Gonzales found himself approving step-by-step torture memos specifying just how much torture/abuse/human degradation/minor irritation could be legally permitted. That way lies a lot of embarrassment and not much enlightenment - because it divorces such decisions from context, and therefore from reality.
Judge Mukasey may be wise enough to know that in practice the various Thou Shalt Nots depend on the circumstances, like the application of any other sacred principle. But what circumstances could possibly justify scaring a terrorist almost to death?
To cite the classic hypothetical: What if thousands of innocent lives could be saved by waterboarding one terrorist? Consider the case of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks. Word has it the he revealed al-Qaida's whole table of organization in Europe after being waterboarded.
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