The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Yesterday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report (written by Democrats on the committee) on CIA "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT) in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11. Predictably, the report has the media all aflutter.

It does appear that harsh, but not deadly, interrogation techniques were used. It also appears that some in the CIA overstepped their legal authority. It is highly debatable whether EIT provided useful intelligence. The Democrats on the committee say "no," and the CIA begs to differ. Both sides of the argument are self-serving, so the truth is likely somewhere in between.

The main stream media and the Democrats use the word "torture" to describe the activities used in a program that ended in 2006 (at least as far as we know). The problem is that we've dumbed down the definition of the term. In the days before our new-found sensitivity, torture was viewed as an inhumane activity in which the prisoner is physically maimed or killed. To be graphic for a moment, torture was once viewed as an act in which fingers were cut off, eyes were plucked out, limbs were broken—the victim often died as a result or was permanently maimed or disfigured.

No more. Now torture is anything, it seems, that causes the prisoner significant discomfort—a feeling that you're drowning (water-boarding) is torture. Harsh physical contact that causes no permanent injury is torture, sleep deprivation is torture because it causes intense pychological discomfort. In the next iteration a decade hence, it might be that imprisonment itself will be considered "torture." Or possibly the refusal to provide Halal food to a Muslim terrorist in prison would be considered "torture." As we move along a path to an ever-expanding definition of the word, do we establish any limits at all?

And by the way, I think it's fair to state that forcing a person to choose between incineration and jumping from the 106th floor of the World Trade Center, or sawing off the head of a hostage in Syria, or maiming innocents at a road race in Boston would easily fall within the old-school defintiion of the term "torture," but I suppose that's beside the point. After all, to quote those who just love to pontificate from their high moral perch, we certainly don't want to lower ourselves to the level of our Islamist enemy, do we?

This isn't an easy issue. On the one hand, we do have values and we want to sustain them. I respect people like John McCain who, drawing on personal experience, argues that all torture is wrong—period.  On the other hand, we are at war (yes, war) with a barbaric Islamist enemy who recognizes no such abstract moral boundaries. They attack, they murder, they maim in the name of a god that seeks righteous vengeance again the "Crusaders." They've done it in the past. They'll do it again, possibly on a very big scale, in the future.

The brave and much-maligned men and women in the CIA are chartered with uncovering Islamist plots and stopping them. If that requires harsh treatment of prisoners, conducted in dark places that all of us would prefer not to visit, that's acceptable, at least under certain conditions. The alternative is deciding that protecting the delicate sensibilities of Islamic terrorists is more important than protecting the lives of your own people. For me, it a relatively simple choice.

UPDATE (12/11/14):

Richard Fernandez makes the following comment after his article at the Belmont Club. It's woprth thinking about:
Let me say for the record what I have said before. That if I were president I would openly approve a degree of coercion, including sleep deprivation, drugs and psychological pressure. And sign it. But I would not under any circumstances, authorize torture in the Gestapo or NKVD sense. No thumbscrews, bone breaking, ice water dunking, etc. Why? Because that's me. That's religious conviction speaking there.

And having disauthorized torture I would take a deep breath go to the public and say: "You folks don't necessarily share my conviction. Please understand that people are going to die because I won't authorize this torture, because it works sometimes. I want you to know that. To understand what this choice implies.

"We're giving up and advantage which is why it is morally hard. We are trading off something in the world we know in exchange for some value which may not even exist.

"If you don't like the tradeoff, I understand that too. If you object, I'll resign and gladly too. I can only promise you this: if you go along I'll make sure that if my own son were taken to be killed and I had the power to compel his kidnapper to reveal his whereabouts to me and save him, that I am prevented from making an exception. That even if he were on the phone saying, daddy, daddy, save me, that I would lift a finger against his grinning kidnapper.

"Because I am determined that if this price should be paid then should not ask someone to make a sacrifice I will not myself undertake."

"Are well on board here? Are we all willing to make the pact that if our sons or daughters were facing a horrible death; and torture could reveal their locations, that we would not do it?

"If not, then let's sign on to torture now. Own up to it like men. Because otherwise we're not serious. Let's do all the necessary torture ourselves and not outsource it to Pakistan or Egypt. But if you are determined to avoid it, then be serious about it, like the Christians of old were, and take what comes, furnace or lions den. Because that was the choice and they chose the lion's den. Take what comes or our morality isn't worth a damn.

"If you want to be a saint or a hero, prepare to pay the price. That's the way it's always been. Any politician who promises you both convenience and a good conscience is damned liar."