For a while now, I've been gearing up to write something about torture and the legacy of the Bush administration, but honestly I don't know where to start. This issue terrifies me for two reasons: I think torturing someone is just about the worst thing you can ever do to him or her, and at the same time torturing people seems to be gaining an enormous amount of political momentum.
Torture is unique in its ability to strip someone not just of his freedom to move or act without restraint, but even to think. It concentrates every aspect of a person's existence on his own suffering and pain. Isn't that obviously inherently wrong? Not according to most Americans anymore. Recently, a number of polls have shown increasing willingness of Americans to accept torture of terrorism suspects. This is either driving, or driven by, the fact that conservative commentators don't even have to hide their embrace of torture anymore. Dick Cheney bragged about his "strong support" for waterboarding on national TV, and the Washington Post hired torture-enthusiast and former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen to write on its op-ed page. As any number of sane writers have pointed out, there has never been any internationally or domestically recognized court decision that has ever denied that waterboarding (among other things) is torture. And yet the former VP has admitted to playing a role in its implementation for the whole world to see!
A policy of torture has to overcome four hurdles to be worthwhile: It has to yield valuable intelligence. Even if it yields valuable intelligence, it has to yield more valuable intelligence than traditional methods of interrogation. Even if it does that, it has to be worth the strategic costs that the policy entails. And even if it's worth those strategic costs, it has to be worth the moral cost. Torture fails at all four levels. According to every single intelligence expert who doesn't have a specific political or legal interest in the legitimacy of Bush-approved torture, it fails spectacularly to clear first three hurdles. Only people like Cheney and Thiessen have claimed otherwise. And their justification of the moral question is purely utilitarian, and thus rests on their dubious claims about the first three issues above.
Even if all their ridiculous claims about torture were true, and their actions cleared all moral hurdles, all the acts of torture they helped promulgate were and are illegal. A year ago I wrote in a letter to the Washington Post, "The point is, if the administration truly believed that these techniques were necessary and justified, then why didn't they go through the standard channels (that is, lawmaking) that we use in democratic societies to make them legal?" The obvious point I was trying to make is that they would have failed miserably. What's mortifying is that if Republicans regained control of the government, they might take that very strategy to heart. What if they succeeded?
Usually, when in the past, the US government has committed atrocities in times of duress, there's at least some perspective, condemnation, or general shame that follows. As a society we're really far from that point. When, and how, will we get there?