President Bush has an executive order banning torture in CIA questioning. Good for him. I am opposed to the use of torture under any circumstances. I am also opposed to terrorist attacks on American soil under any circumstances. It occurs to me that one of these two opinions might have to be surrendered in certain circumstances. Suppose we (and I mean WE, for our army and police force act only with our consent) have good evidence that a nuclear device has been smuggled into the US, and we have in custody a suspect who knows where it is and what his buddies intend to do with it. Suppose also that we have a technique, like water-boarding, that is almost guaranteed to get the information we want. Should we use that technique?
This is a no-brainer. Even if water-boarding is brutal, and it is, it doesn’t hold water against the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of our citizens, and a gaping hole in the fabric of America. But even if you are willing to make that trade in order to avoid a single act of brutality, the trade would be self-defeating. If a weapon of mass destruction were to go off on American soil, it would put the nation into a state of emergency such as it has never seen. The army and all police forces, state and federal, would proceed to do whatever they could to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, without bothering with such conveniences as due process.
And if it were made public that we could have stopped the disaster if only we had been willing to use more brutal means, I can assure you that both parties would immediately cleanse themselves of any scruples they might have had about torture. Nor would anyone who opposed the use of torture for state security have a chance to be elected dog catcher ever again. I am not telling you what should happen. I am telling you what will happen.If you want to preserve a republic that can afford scruples about torture, you have to prevent the unthinkable from happening. And that may mean making some hard choices now.