The debate over the enhanced interrogation techniques is almost Orwellian. It is torture? Of course it is. So is listening to any number of talking head simplistic moralizers from either end of the spectrum. It is torture and the difference is not one of definition, but one of degrees.
Is it morally justified? Well that seems kind of relevant to the situation it is used in. Combat is filled with moral compromises. We spend a lot of money figuring out how to kill and wound people and we have justified civilian casualties by merely calling them collateral damages. War is a very dirty business no matter how much we try to civilize it.
Water boarding is torture. So is sitting in a cold room in an uncomfortable chair for 12 hours, or being forced to listen to terrible sounds at high volume or sleep deprivation. Interrogations have used all of these methods. These are more humane than severe beatings, broken bones or internet broadcast beheadings. The salient point is a question of degree.
Debating their effectiveness is also somewhat irrelevant. If you even consider effectiveness as an issue then I must assume you have come to grips with the moral compromise involved.
Once we get beyond the moralizing and name calling then we must address the nature of the act, and that is exactly what Judea Pearl calls for in “We Need a New Legal Regime to Fight the War on Terror ” in the Wall Street Journal. Read his excellent article here. Judea Pearl is the father of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist, decapitated by Muslim terrorists for being an American and a Jew.
What Bush faced was the reality that global terrorists groups are a problem that does not fit with the solutions at hand. Bill Clinton tried treating the problems as a criminal act and while it seemed a rational idea at the time, it clearly was ineffective. Yet the groups that threaten us do not fit within the definitions of any army ruled by the Geneva conventions.
We may not like the answers, especially in light of eight years without another successful attack, but Bush did ask the question. He may have approved a level of torture, but it was not without examining legal issues and involving Congress in the debate. While his critics are not known for subtlety, his focus, however misguided it seems now, was to protect the country.
The debate on the degree and appropriateness of torture needs to be held, though it may never be decided. Like any moral compromise it is hard to contain. But our potential prosecution of many involved is damaging to our war effort. And it is a war even if the president prefers to label it an “overseas contingency operation”.
It is easier to blame and prosecute than it is to address the issue that Judea Pearl so clearly says we must. We must clarify and classify global terrorism as a crime distinct from an act of war and a mere criminal act. This is not easy and can open up entirely new areas of abuse, but it is the right course to take.
Those who made and must continue to make the difficult decisions to protect us, morally compromised or not, effective or not, deserve no less.