Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed legislation incorporating into U.S. law the Geneva Convention ban on mistreating prisoners. The bill, which bans cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, passed the Senate 90 to 9. To say it's got momentum is putting it mildly.
But President Bush says he will veto the bill unless the CIA is exempted. Vice President Cheney has led the administration's campaign for the exemption. It's a hard sell; pro-torture politicians are scarce around Washington.
But of course you don't have to be "pro-torture" to oppose the McCain amendment. That naive misunderstanding summarizes the threat posed by this good-hearted, wrong-headed legislation. Those who oppose the amendment don't think the CIA should be permitted to use torture or other rough interrogation techniques. What they think is that sometimes the CIA should be required to squeeze the truth out of prisoners. Not because the CIA wants to torture people, but because it may be the only option we've got.
McCain's amendment is a trap for the lazy minded. Whenever a position seems so obvious that you don't even have to stop and think stop and think.
Americans will never be permitted to use torture as punishment or vengeance. A criminal might deserve to be tortured; we refuse to torture him nonetheless, because to do so degrades us. But if torturing a terrorist (or carrying out some other form of rough interrogation) is the only way to save innocent lives, we have no right to refuse.
Most human beings recoil from committing torture. But sometimes we have an obligation to do hard things for the good of the nation as no man knows better than McCain, who fought for his country and suffered long years as a brutally mistreated POW.
But his amendment lets the CIA do what he refused to do. It lets the CIA take an easy out.
In 1982, the philosopher Michael Levin published an article challenging the popular view that the U.S. must never engage in torture. "Someday soon," he concluded, "a terrorist will threaten tens of thousands of lives, and torture will be the only way to save them."
Suppose a nuclear bomb is primed to detonate somewhere in Manhattan, Levin wrote, and we've captured a terrorist who knows where the bomb is. But he won't talk. By forbidding torture, you inflict death on many thousands of innocents and endless suffering on the families of those who died at a terrorist's whim and who might have lived had government done its ugly duty.
Those who defend McCain's amendment and attack Cheney and Bush feel a nice warm glow, as if they're basking in virtue, as in a hot tub, sipping Cabernet. But there is no virtue in joining a crowd, even if the crowd is right and this one isn't.
McCain is a bona fide hero. But there's nothing courageous in standing firm with virtually the whole cultural leadership of this nation and the Western world, under any circumstances. It's too easy. To take a principled stand that you know will make people loathe and vilify you that's what integrity, leadership and moral courage are all about. This time Cheney is the hero. McCain is taking the easy out.
Of course, saying "never" instead of "almost never" is a trap that well-meaning, lazy people have been falling into for a long time. In a celebrated passage in "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoevsky tells a story designed to end that error forever about a rich, powerful general and an 8-year-old boy serf who "hurt the paw of the general's favorite hound." The next morning, the child is stripped naked. The general looses his pack of wolfhounds on the boy, who is torn to pieces before his mother's eyes.
What should be done to the general? The gentle monk Alyosha, who can't stand the thought of bloodshed, answers, "Shoot him." He has decided that capital punishment should be "almost never," not "never."
In the end, this column is indeed about willful, cheerful torture committed not by the CIA but by terrorists whose bombs leave bewildered innocents maimed, blinded or wracked with pain for the rest of their lives, or ripped to pieces. Why? The torturers (or their friends) only smirk and tell us that "Allahu Akbar" ("G-d is Great").
We do not torture such terrorists to punish them. G-d forbid we should do as they do. But if torture (used with repugnance) can stop even one such atrocity, our duty is hideously plain.