April 24, 2024

Torture, the Litmus Test

There have been several anti-torture articles today, most in opposition to the practice. I’m glad of that – no one should want to have to inflict pain and suffering on another human being. But how important is the debate and/or the practice?

At the LA Times, Rosa Brooks calls torture “the new abortion” for the way it divides Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Compared to Nora Ephron’s recent offering that was discussed here, Brooks’ article ups the snideness level significantly:

Remember that golden, innocent time — the 1980s and ’90s — when the phrase “political litmus test” was associated with the debate about abortion rights, and torture was associated with the Spanish Inquisition?

Today, though, the GOP’s interest in abortion appears greatly diminished. When President Bush nominated Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general, no one seemed clear about Mukasey’s views on abortion — and no one in the GOP seemed to care very much either.

These days, you can forget that old-style GOP rhetoric about “values,” “human dignity” and the “culture of life.” Because the GOP has a new litmus test for its nominees: Will you or will you not protect U.S. officials who order the torture of prisoners?

Given what the procedure entails, it’s interesting that Brooks would use the issue of abortion to try to demonstrate what good people the Democrats, a.k.a. Enlightened Liberals, are. But the decision is quite revealing.

Indeed, during the day in which the articles I’ll link to in this post were written, the lives of approximately 3500 future Americans were terminated in abortion clinics in this country alone. Someone should have reminded Rosa of that.

I realize that I’m supposed to be intimidated by Brooks’ snappy liberal patter and sense of moral superiority, concede that the physical abuse of a handful of war criminals is a much more important test of our nation’s ethics, and thank her for pointing out just how wrong I am.

Sadly, it just isn’t happening for me. And I’m not alone. A recent CNN poll revealed that 40% of American agree that some forms of torture can be used to extract information from terrorists if need be.

Is waterboarding one of them? To be determined. But the poll reported that 69% of Americans categorize the practice as torture. Experts agree, including Malcolm Nance and Steve Kleinman, both of whom are military men of significant experience. Sounds right to me; I have no problem saying waterboarding is torture.

Here’s a situation in which I believe torture is warranted:

Now, the ticking-bomb case — depending on where you sit on the torture question — is either the hardest test of someone’s sense of balance between human rights and national security or a rhetorical trap designed to box opponents of torture into saying that it’s better for Sheboygan to be nuked than someone be waterboarded. But the question was handled by U.S. Air Force Reserve Colonel Steve Kleinman, a longtime military interrogator and intelligence officer. He said that even in the ticking bomb case, torture would be the wrong call. “‘I’d say it’d be unneccesary to conduct our affairs outside the boundaries,” Kleinman replied. His experience “proves the legal and moral concerns to be almost immaterial, because what we’d need to do to be operationally effective” wouldn’t involve torture.

But Kleinman’s experience, while it strongly indicates that the effort would be a waste of time, doesn’t prove anything. In any given situation he is probably right. But proof means 100% and we all know that level of certainty is not and cannot be not met in these cases.

Concluding that article, Spencer Ackerman wonders:

Kleinman’s testimony suggests that anyone who’d waterboard in a ticking-bomb case is wasting time that could be used to stop Sheboygan’s imminent destruction. When’s that going to be considered a threat to national security?

That question is utterly irrelevant. If the ticking bomb scenario ever does come to pass, every law enforcement person in the country will be on the case. Meanwhile, a bare dozen guys would be sweating the terrorist who knows the nuke’s location. Resources are the least of our problems in that situation.

Like Ephron, what Brooks is really upset at is Michael Mukasey’s nomination for Attorney General getting out of committee. She lets the two Democrats responsible know about it in no uncertain terms:

Significantly, every Democrat running for president opposed Mukasey’s confirmation, specifically citing his refusal to call waterboarding torture. New York’s Charles Schumer and California’s Dianne Feinstein became the only Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote for Mukasey, and both found themselves on the defensive.

They shouldn’t have been so surprised by the rapid blowback. Far more than the abortion debate ever did, the debate about torture goes to the very heart of what (if anything) this country stands for.

In this Ms. Brooks is completely wrong.

First, torturing terrorists should only be done in situations in which many lives are at stake. Abortion cannot be compared to this. Second, terrorists captured in the act of destruction and murder, in the planning stages of such an act, or on the battlefield are grown men (and women) who have chosen to terrorize and kill innocent people. Clearly that cannot be said about a baby in the womb.

No, if we’re to compare the torture debate to any liberal/conservative wrangle it’s the use of the death penalty. Both involve crimes of the most despicable sort committed by adults with an understanding of what their acts mean. Similarly, the number of individuals impacted by these practices is statistically very small.

As a comparison, let’s assume 1000 terrorists have been waterboarded in the last four years. That’s probably way high, but go with it. During that same period approximately 5,000,000 million abortions have been performed in the U.S. alone.

5000 to 1.

That’s the referendum on American morality that Ms. Brooks was looking for and was somehow unable to see.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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