Friday, May 8, 2009

The Whats Vs. The Whys Of Torture

Andrew Sullivan skewers former Bush adviser Karl Rove for saying that the Bush administration didn't authorize torture even though he's said that John McCain was tortured in North Vietnam because he was left in a stress position, one of the techniques the Bush administration authorized. Under political and media pressure, the Bush administration itself banned the most controversial technique, waterboarding, which hadn't actually been used since 2003. But as for whether it amounted to torture, the word game that Rove and others are playing is unseemly and dangerous.

While its agents didn't maim and kill its prisoners, the CIA used extreme discomfort and pain to punish people or extract information. Perhaps Rove and other Bush advocates should call it "mild torture," "not the worst kind of torture you can imagine," or "not anything like what our enemies would do and have done to our guys if they got the chance." But they should stop acting as though it wasn't torture at all.

The first reason is that insisting otherwise is an Orwellian misuse of language. Besides that, after all these months the American people have every reason to believe that the fundamental issue in the torture debate is the definition of the word. If President Bush and his advocates are seen as losing the semantic argument, they risk losing the moral one as well. Better to cede the definition and invite the more important and far more complicated debate over how much latitude we are willing to give the government in times of apparent existential challenge. Bush and his advocates will stand taller in that conversation, and rightly so. One risks looking evasive and self-serving by arguing that torture isn't torture. If instead you say, "I might have gone too far to protect the people of the United States, and I have to say that I'd probably do it again," you don't look perfect, but you also don't look small.

Did Bush really go too far? He may have. Did he do so with the best intentions as well as with the knowledge of Democrats and Republicans in Congress? He did. Do future administrations have something to learn from this experience? Undoubtedly. Should the former President and his advisers be prosecuted? Only if we want to weaken the Presidency. Only if we're more interested in political retribution and advantage than in really understanding and learning from what went right and wrong.

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