Steve Chapman

If none of that shocks you, consider this: More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody over the last eight years, and the CIA has been implicated in some of the deaths. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey says dozens of prisoners were "murdered."

The other conservative defense is that these methods were used only against people who had it coming. "They are terrorists who killed hundreds and thousands of Americans," insisted Seth Leibsohn on National Review Online.

But being innocent was no protection against violent abuse. CIA officers told the IG that accusations "unsupported by credible intelligence may have resulted in the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (SET ITAL) without justification (END ITAL)." (my emphasis)

Innocent, guilty -- what difference does it make? To many people, anything the government does is justified if it might save American lives. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, put it baldly: "We should do whatever we have to do."

He would get an argument from Ronald Reagan, who signed an international ban on torture, which made no allowances for grave security threats. "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture," it says.

Reagan undoubtedly knew what modern conservatives forget -- that once you rationalize torture, there is no logical place to stop. If threatening a prisoner with a power drill is permissible, why not drilling holes in him? If choking is OK, why not strangulation? If threatening to kill a detainee's children passes muster, why not actually killing them? If 30 wall slams don't do the job, why not 100?

Many modern conservatives, unlike Reagan, are willing to incinerate every civilized principle to avert the possibility of harm -- and they think the public agrees. But if that's true, let's stop pretending America is the home of the brave.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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