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Torture Is Not for the Fallible

By Dan Froomkin
10:10 AM ET, 05/18/2009

In his Washington Post opinion column on Friday, Charles Krauthammer continues his defense of torture, calling my critique of his May 1 column "stupid".

I had taken issue with, among other things, Krauthammer's assertion that a "ticking time bomb" scenario could exist in real life. Krauthammer responds with what he considers an example: The tragic case of Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, who was kidnapped 15 years ago by Palestinian terrorists. Israeli authorities apparently used torture to find out where he was being held. Then Waxman (along with four others) were killed during the rescue attempt.

In other words, in the one instance in all modern history that Krauthammer can find of a "ticking time bomb", there was none -- i.e. there was no imminent apocalyptic danger -- and torture actually hastened, rather than avoided, the worst-case scenario. Steve Benen blogs for Washington Monthly: "What Krauthammer has offered is a story in which bad guys kidnapped a good guy. If that's grounds for torture, practically every kidnapping would compel U.S. officials -- not just the CIA and the military, but state and local law enforcement, too -- to torture suspected accomplices with some regularity."

That said, I understand why Krauthammer and other torture apologists continue to hold the ticking time bomb scenario as their first principle.

If we knew with God-like certainty that someone we had in custody had information that could prevent an imminent attack on a large number of people -- and we knew that in this particular case torture was absolutely the only way to pry it out of him -- then, yes, I suspect many of us would use torture.

But we are not gods. We are humans. Such certainty doesn't exist for us (except, of course, on TV).

And because we are humans, not gods, we have chosen to be ruled by laws -- laws that draw clear lines between what actions are appropriate for humans, and what are not.

Indeed, ever since World War II, those laws have been codified to represent what civilized nations agree are -- or at least should be -- universal values. Chief among those is a respect for human dignity. The United States in particular has cast itself as the world's champion of human dignity. And nothing is more antithetical to human dignity than torture.

Furthermore, if we go the God-like path, where does it stop? Krauthammer's columns are a perfect example. His first exception for what he himself called "impermissible evil" is the ticking time bomb scenario. By the second, he is advocating torture for fishing expeditions, or as he puts it: "[T]he extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives."

The slippery slope Krauthammer so enthusiastically plunges down is, unfortunately, anything but theoretical. It has become increasingly clear that in a series of decisions -- documented in the February 2002 memo in which former president George W. Bush exempted war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions, the August 2002 Justice Department memos (one and two) explicitly sanctioning measures that by any reasonable definition constitute torture, and the December 2002 memo from then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorizing the use of stress positions, hooding and dogs -- the Bush administration opened the door wide to abusive and degrading practices. Far from being limited to ostensibly "high value" detainees, state-sanctioned cruelty was applied willy-nilly to many of those unfortunate enough to get swept up into the system, in such a way that history will judge us poorly and that the American public -- when it finally gets its head around what happened -- will undoubtedly reject it.

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