The Recurring Logic of Torture

I had no intention of commenting on the speeches made by President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday. I haven’t read the transcripts, and I’ve only seen short clips of the video. Most people have already made up their minds on this, and neither Obama, Cheney, or myself is likely to convince anyone to change their judgment.

But there are a few things that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere.

First of all, the degree to which Cheney’s battle has become a personal one to resurrect his reputation. By all accounts, Cheney got spooked on 9/11. Should history judge that his subsequent actions were unjustified and morally reprehensible, he becomes a pathetic cross between the Wizard of Oz, cast out from behind his curtain, and the Cowardly Lion. Condoleezza Rice’s recent remarks about 9/11 suggest that everyone in the Bush administration was just as spooked as Cheney. That’s understandable. It was a terrifying event. But national resilience depends on leaders not responding to security threats based on their own fear and terror. These are, after all, the same folks who in less than ten minutes’ time would be responsible for making nuclear-launch decisions. The nuclear launch scenario, of course, is a familiar one that the national security infrastructure has rehearsed for over fifty years. Hopefully, the same is now true for a major terrorist attack.

Second of all, this debate boils down to policy, not conduct. What I mean by that is that the U.S., like all nations, operates according to a different moral code than that which governs individuals. It is either naive or disingenuous to believe that we don’t or shouldn’t, given the nature of the state and non-state actors we face as rivals, adversaries and enemies. The current debate is over whether torture should ever be enshrined as official policy, and if so under what circumstances. For me, the moral arguments against torture are enough to end that debate. Not least of those, but often overlooked, is the fact that torture confers the moral stature of victim on people who should otherwise be condemned as victimizers. That is a grave injustice, both to their actual victims and to all those who have ever been tortured for reasons of political repression, expediency, or simple cruelty.

The case for making exceptions to that moral stand against torture is based on debatable practical arguments. Sadly, there is nothing novel about those arguments. Torture is not the exception over the long span of human history, but the rule. The moral bulwarks against its use are necessary because the logic of expediency used to justify it is so tempting and commonplace. Those bulwarks must be steadfast and exception-free, otherwise they cannot withstand the recurring pressures of that logic. In other words, there is nothing exceptional about the exception that Dick Cheney is arguing for. It raises its head repeatedly throughout any nation’s history, and if it is not thoroughly beaten back each time, it has a tendency to install itself, first in the treatment of foreign enemies, later in the treatment of domestic enemies. This is our opportunity to beat that logic back for now. If we do not seize it, we will very likely be having this discussion in the future regarding not the use of torture, but the expanding limits of its use.

Finally, most of the attention in recent weeks has focused on President Obama’s uneven handling of the legacy he inherited from the Bush administration. But just as important moving forward is the need to institutionalize the executive-branch legal review mechanisms in such a way as to put an end to the kind of legal cherry-picking used by the Bush administration to exculpate its policy preferences.

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