Torture is wrong. All decent people oppose it. In a 2005 column, I wrote: "Because principles matter, in this conflict more than most, the United States must keep the high ground in the debate about torture and the rights of detainees in the war on terror."
As a columnist whose greatest responsibility rarely exceeds meeting a deadline, I have the luxury of making such pronouncements. But I'm forthright enough to acknowledge this state of bliss a state I share with most Americans.
There are some people who don't have that luxury, however. The judgments they make may affect the lives and deaths of their fellow citizens. Perhaps hundreds of them. Thousands of them. And in times of peril, they must make difficult decisions often with imprecise information that less-scrupulous people will second-guess in times of safety.
Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently gave a nod to the people with responsibility and added a bit of humility to the debate about the so-called torture memos. "I don't want to make an apology for anyone, but in 2002, it wasn't 2006, 07, 08 or 09," she said. "It was right after 9-11, and there were in fact discussions about a second wave of attacks."
Ask yourself what you would do to a terrorist to extract information you thought might save a loved one. Would you push him against a wall? Would you waterboard him? Would you do anything you thought might reasonably save the life of your husband or wife, son or daughter?
A very small number of people will honestly answer no on principled philosophical and religious grounds. A larger number will honestly answer yes. And if the public debate about the Bush administration's enhanced interrogation methods is any indication, an embarrassing number of two-faced moral absolutists will dishonestly answer no.
Call it enhanced prevarication. And its leading proponent is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in the flash of a CIA report went from being the foremost spokeswoman for "torture" show trials to being unable to articulate a coherent sentence. Responsibility? That's for other people, not the person two heartbeats away from the Oval Office.
Leon Panetta, the CIA director who issued the report, evidently grasps the responsibility of his position. At his confirmation hearing in February, Panetta told the Senate Intelligence Committee, "If we had a ticking bomb situation and obviously whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need."
Warning to Panetta: When the bomb is defused or if the bomb threat turns out not to be as serious as you believed, be prepared to be tried and summarily convicted by armchair tribunals of your fellow citizens.
President Barack Obama, explaining his decision to release the enhanced interrogation memos, said the best way to protect the nation is not to take ethical shortcuts that "undermine who we are." But he preceded that by saying: "Ultimately I will be judged as commander in chief on how safe I'm keeping the American people. That's the responsibility I wake up with and it's the responsibility I go to sleep with. And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe."
In recognition of that responsibility, Obama last week reversed his decision to release photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."
It's almost enough to make the enhanced prevaricators think there's a war going on somewhere, that the United States has enemies, enemies who want to kill Americans even in 2009.