Charles Krauthammer / May 15, 2009

The Torture Debate, Continued

WASHINGTON – Earlier this month, I wrote a column outlining two exceptions to the no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb scenario and its less extreme variant in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives. The column elicited protest and opposition that were, shall we say, spirited.

And occasionally stupid. Dan Froomkin, writing for washingtonpost.com and echoing a common meme among my critics, asserted that “the ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians.” (He later helpfully suggested that my moral deficiencies derived from “watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer.”)

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel’s existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered, as we now say, this enhanced interrogation explained without apology: “If we’d been so careful to follow the (‘87) Landau Commission (guidelines), we would never have found out where Waxman was being held.”

Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. (The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin’s moral calculus.)

That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you “do what you have to do.” The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks. (By the way, I’ve never seen five seconds of “24.”)

My column also pointed out the contemptible hypocrisy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is feigning outrage now about techniques that she knew about and did nothing to stop at the time.

My critics say: So what if Pelosi is a hypocrite? Her behavior doesn’t change the truth about torture.

But it does. The fact that Pelosi (and her intelligence aide) and then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss and dozens of other members of Congress knew about the enhanced interrogation and said nothing, and did nothing to cut off the funding, tells us something very important.

Our jurisprudence has the “reasonable man” standard. A jury is asked to consider what a reasonable person would do under certain urgent circumstances.

On the morality of waterboarding and other “torture,” Pelosi and other senior and expert members of Congress represented their colleagues, and indeed the entire American people, in rendering the reasonable person verdict. What did they do? They gave tacit approval. In fact, according to Goss, they offered encouragement. Given the existing circumstances, they clearly deemed the interrogations warranted.

Moreover, the circle of approval was wider than that. As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg points out, those favoring harsh interrogation at the time included Alan Dershowitz, Mark Bowden and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. In November 2001, Alter suggested we consider “transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies” (i.e. those that torture). And, as Weisberg notes, these were just the liberals.

So what happened? The reason Pelosi raised no objection to waterboarding at the time, the reason the American people (who by 2004 knew what was going on) strongly re-elected the man who ordered these interrogations, is not because she and the rest of the American people suffered a years-long moral psychosis from which they have just now awoken. It is because at that time they were aware of the existing conditions – our blindness to al-Qaeda’s plans, the urgency of the threat, the magnitude of the suffering that might be caused by a second 9/11, the likelihood that the interrogation would extract intelligence that President Obama’s own director of national intelligence now tells us was indeed “high-value information” – and concluded that on balance it was a reasonable response to a terrible threat.

And they were right.

You can believe that Pelosi and the whole American public underwent a radical transformation from moral normality to complicity with war criminality back to normality. Or you can believe that their personalities and moral compasses have remained steady throughout the years, but changes in circumstances (threat, knowledge, imminence) alter the moral calculus attached to any interrogation technique.

You don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you which of these theories is utterly fantastical.

© 2009, The Washington Post Writers Group

Start a conversation using these share links:

Who We Are

The Patriot Post is a highly acclaimed weekday digest of news analysis, policy and opinion written from the heartland — as opposed to the MSM’s ubiquitous Beltway echo chambers — for grassroots leaders nationwide. More

What We Offer

On the Web

We provide solid conservative perspective on the most important issues, including analysis, opinion columns, headline summaries, memes, cartoons and much more.

Via Email

Choose our full-length Digest or our quick-reading Snapshot for a summary of important news. We also offer Cartoons & Memes on Monday and Alexander’s column on Wednesday.

Our Mission

The Patriot Post is steadfast in our mission to extend the endowment of Liberty to the next generation by advocating for individual rights and responsibilities, supporting the restoration of constitutional limits on government and the judiciary, and promoting free enterprise, national defense and traditional American values. We are a rock-solid conservative touchstone for the expanding ranks of grassroots Americans Patriots from all walks of life. Our mission and operation budgets are not financed by any political or special interest groups, and to protect our editorial integrity, we accept no advertising. We are sustained solely by you. Please support The Patriot Fund today!

★ PUBLIUS ★

“Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!” —George Washington

The Patriot Post is protected speech, as enumerated in the First Amendment and enforced by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, in accordance with the endowed and unalienable Rights of All Mankind.

Copyright © 2022 The Patriot Post. All Rights Reserved.

The Patriot Post does not support Internet Explorer. We recommend installing the latest version of Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome.