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Lines on a slippery slope

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

So the use of coercion in interrogations lies on a continuum of ethics and risk. Lines must somehow be drawn on the slippery slope -- the difficult task that Justice Department lawyers were given. On which side of the line should waterboarding lie? It is the hardest case. The practice remains deeply troubling to me, and was discontinued by the CIA in 2006 after being used on three terrorists. But some members of Congress, it is now apparent, knew of the technique and funded it. The decision was not easy or obvious for them. It was just as difficult for intelligence and Justice Department officials in the months of uncertainty following 9/11.

I respect many of those who say ``never'' in regard to coercive interrogation -- just as I respect pacifists who believe that the use of violence and coercion by government is always wrong. This can be a position of admirable moral consistency, and some have willingly sacrificed for its sake. But holding this view is not an option for those in government, charged with the protection of citizens who share this position and those who do not. Adherence to this principle could involve unwilling sacrifice for many others.

Some have dismissed this argument as "moral relativism" or the assertion that the ends justify the means. But this betrays a misunderstanding of ethics itself. The most difficult moral decisions in government are required when two moral goods come into conflict. Most of us believe in the dignity of the human person, a principle that covers even those who commit grave evils. Most of us believe in the responsibility of government to protect the innocent from death and harm. Government officials pursue both moral goods in a complicated world. In retrospect, they may sometimes get the balance wrong. But national security decisions are not made in retrospect.

I suspect that most Americans, in considering these matters, would come to certain conclusions: There should be a broad presumption against harsh interrogations by our government. An atmosphere of permission can result in discrediting crimes such as Abu Ghraib. But perhaps in the most extreme cases -- when the threat of a terrorist attack is clear and serious -- American officials may need to employ harsh questioning, while protecting terrorists from permanent injury. In broad outlines, this approach is consistent with the Justice Department memos.

I remain ambivalent about these issues. There may be other, equally effective ways to get information from terrorists -- I don't know enough about such techniques to be certain. Elements of the interrogation program may have been mistaken. But these were not clear or obvious calls -- and they deserve more than facile, retrospective judgments.

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