Politics & Policy

The Torture Taboo

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The taboo against torture is important and honorable, but sometimes the real world gets a veto.

For a long time I resisted the word “torture” when discussing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against high-value captives in the War on Terror. I don’t think I can do that anymore.

The report put out by Dianne Feinstein and her fellow Democrats may be partisan, one-sided, tendentious, and “full of crap,” as Dick Cheney put it the other night on Special Report with Bret Baier. But even the selective use and misuse of facts doesn’t change their status as facts. What some of these detainees went through pretty obviously amounted to torture. You can call it “psychological torture” or something to that effect, but such qualifiers don’t get you all that far.

It’s true that torture is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. Everyone can agree that hot pokers, the rack, and the iron maiden qualify. But loud music, sleep deprivation, and even waterboarding? At first, maybe not. But over time, yes. Torture can be a lot like poison: The dosage matters.

One of the great problems with the word “torture” is that it tolerates no ambiguity. It is a taboo word, like racism or incest. Once you call something torture, the conversation is supposed to end. It’s a line no one may cross. As a result, if you think the enhanced interrogation techniques are necessary, or simply justified, you have to call them something else. Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them “torture,” their work is done.

The problem is that the issue isn’t nearly so binary. Even John McCain — a vocal opponent of any kind of torture — has conceded that in some hypothetical nuclear ticking-time-bomb scenario, torture might be a necessary evil. His threshold might be very high, but the principle is there nonetheless. And nearly everyone understands the point: When a greater evil is looming in the imminent future, the lesser evil becomes more tolerable. This is why opponents of the interrogation program are obsessed with claiming that it never worked, at all.

And this suggests why the talking point about drone strikes has such power. Killing is worse than torture. Life in prison might be called torture for some people, and yet we consider the death penalty a more severe punishment. Most people would prefer to be waterboarded than killed. All sane and decent people would rather go through what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed went through than see their whole family slaughtered from 10,000 feet by a drone. And yet President Obama routinely sanctions drone strikes while piously outlawing the slapping of prisoners who might have information that would make such strikes less necessary — and, more importantly, would prevent the loss of innocent American lives.

It’s odd: Even though killing is a graver moral act, there’s more flexibility to it. America killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in World War II, but few would call that murder because such actions as the firebombing of Dresden were deemed necessary to win the war.

In other words, we have the moral vocabulary to talk about kinds of killing — from euthanasia and abortion to capital punishment, involuntary manslaughter and, of course, murder — but we don’t have a similar lexicon when it comes to kinds of torture.

When John McCain was brutally tortured — far, far more severely than anything we’ve done to the 9/11 plotters — it was done to elicit false confessions and other statements for purposes of propaganda. When we tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, it was to get actionable intelligence on ongoing plots. It seems to me that’s an important moral distinction. If I torture a fiend to find out where he left a child to suffocate or starve in some dungeon, that’s a less evil act than torturing someone just to hear them renounce their god or country. Also, KSM was not some innocent subjected to torture to satisfy the grotesque desires of some sadists. He is an unlawful combatant responsible for murdering thousands of innocent Americans.

This may sound like nothing more than a rationalization. But that is to be expected when you try to reason through a morally fraught problem. If you believe torture is wrong no matter what, then any sentence that begins, “Yeah, but . . . ” will seem like so much bankrupt sophistry. The same goes for truly devout believers in nonviolence who think any and all killing is wrong.

I can respect that, because I think the taboo against torture is important and honorable, just like the taboos against killing. And just like the taboos against killing, sometimes the real world gets a veto.

— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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