Thursday, February 05, 2009

Hey Congress, Don't Like Torture? Then Outlaw it

Daniel Henninger:
For the past few years, no word has been more casually thrown about than "torture." At the same time, no word has been less precisely defined. That suits Congress just fine, because it allows members to take a pass on defining the law while reserving the right to second-guess the poor souls on the front lines who actually have to make decisions about what the law means.

Last February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thumped loudly when they sent George W. Bush a bill that would have limited the CIA to the interrogation techniques found in the Army Field Manual -- knowing full well that he would veto it. Now they have a Democratic president who says he shares their views. So why not send him a bill declaring once and for all that waterboarding and other interrogation techniques constitute torture?

Manifestly our system of government gives them the right to do so. As CIA Director Michael Hayden noted in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2007, the "CIA operates only within the space given to us by the American people. . . . That space is defined by the policy makers we elect and the laws our representatives pass."

Of course, defining that space would require something in short supply in Washington: an adult conversation. In such a conversation, good men and women could present the case for enhanced interrogation without having their words twisted and finding themselves held up in public as latter-day Torquemadas. Such a conversation might also begin by examining the reigning assumption of today's debate: that context and circumstances have nothing to say about what we call torture.

This is not the reasoning we apply in other areas. Consider a police officer who kills a criminal in a justifiable shooting. We do not call that murder, because the circumstances surrounding the act determine our judgment of that act. If that's true for something as serious as killing, is it really impossible that similar reasoning might apply to interrogation practices that leave no permanent physical or mental damage?

At times, even critics inadvertently make the point. When it is argued, for example, that Navy Seals have undergone waterboarding as part of their training, the response is, well, waterboarding someone as part of his military training is different from waterboarding someone in custody. Yes: Of course it is. In the real world, circumstances and context are crucial to our moral judgments.
The unspoken argument in Henniger's piece is that in the current context and circumstances, passing such a law would require President Obama to take a stance on an issue that was easy to criticize as a candidate and much harder to implement as the President.

The fact that our govnerment has not passed a law (as Hayden suggested be done if you don't like the practice) is that in a certain context and a certain circumstance, not only would waterboarding yeild useful information, it may serve to save hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives. If the practice were outlawed explicitly, then if something bad happened and it came to light that some in custody had the information, what does the GOVERNMENT (now controlled by Democrats) say to that information?

The fact is that in the current context and circumstance, Congressional leaders (read Democrats) don't want to put themselves and their President in that position. The result of course is that Democrats look like political hacks and hypocrits. If it was wrong for George Bush to do it, isn't it just as wrong for Barack Obama to do it?

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