Torture is a difficult subject. I think that for Americans of a certain disposition – particularly those of us who grew up abroad – the idea of torture really cuts to the bone; a body blow against our self-identification as Americans. You don’t have to be Ward Churchill to recognize that America isn’t perfect, but carrying the passport of a country with such an honorable history has always felt very comforting. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many jaded expatriates feel the same way – there is something different about us, and I want to keep it that way.
Having said that, I’m perfectly willing to concede that torture may work under certain circumstances if Bush apologists are willing to admit the moral compromises inherent in any decision to severely mistreat a detainee. So here’s my decision-making calculus: We live in a country governed by a laws. We’re lucky enough to enjoy constitutional protections designed to prevent a wide spectrum of abuse, from administrative indifference to absolute tyranny. The rule of law is obviously very important to any functioning, constitutionally limited democracy. But beyond the practical concerns about the integrity of our legal system, we share (or at least profess to share) certain notions about the essential dignity of human life. For some, this comes from belief in God. For others, it derives (with apologies to John Schwenkler) from a gut feeling. Many of us also have the sense to recognize that torturing people has terrible consequences further down the road.
Precious few other countries have duplicated our experiment in limited government, most of whom were fortunate enough to inherit similar cultural and economic precursors. The circumstances that gave rise to American democracy are difficult to emulate, and when one examines the scope of humany misery that exists beyond our borders, it’s difficult not to thank God or Allah or Lady Luck for gracing us with free admittance to such an exclusive national club.
So our country is unique. And fragile. And worth defending. If preserving the moral and legal underpinnings of our constitutional system requires increasing our exposure to terrorism, that’s a risk I’m willing to take. So can we have a real debate about torture now?