There is a classic old rhetorical question used in teaching debaters how to back their opponents into a corner: "Have you stopped beating your wife, yet?" If the person being questioned blurts out yes, he admits to having beaten his wife in the past. If he answers no, the answer implies he is still beating his wife. The question is phrased in such a way that the person answering it cannot give a simple yes or no answer and look good.
U.S. Senatorial candidate Pat Toomey found himself in the same position during a recent appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club. The issue was water boarding, an "enhanced interrogation technique" considered in some quarters to be torture. Toomey was asked, twice, whether he supported the use of water boarding on terrorists or terror suspects.
Toomey was way too smart to give a yes or no answer to that question. His response was that he is still trying to sort through the issue. The jaded would say Toomey was just another politician giving an evasive answer to a tough question. In reality, Toomey's continued thoughtfulness on the issue is reflective of the soul searching it has caused much of the nation.
On the surface the torture of prisoners would appear to be thoroughly un-American. We are a nation that prides ourselves on the rule of law, on adhering to international conventions (which prohibit torture), and on the basic humane treatment of all people. Torture is something more associated with totalitarian regimes like Soviet-era dictators or more recently Saddam Hussein who had a penchant for feeding his adversaries feet first into meat grinders.
But there comes a time when idealism smacks head-on with reality. In the weeks and months following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks upon America there was ample reason to believe further attacks were both imminent and inevitable. Our security agencies had in their custody enemy combatants who had knowledge about planned future attacks and it was their job to get that information from them.
Such individuals are, of course, somewhat less than cooperative. The failure to get information from them had the very real potential of allowing future attacks and causing the loss of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of American lives. It came down to a choice between mass casualties and the use of less-than-desirable interrogation techniques. Although the record is unclear, it would appear water boarding was used. It is clear there have been no further attacks on American soil.
Now the second guessing has begun. Was the federal government justified in using water boarding and perhaps other "enhanced interrogation techniques" since the nation has not suffered further attack? Here is the flip side to that question: what if we learned such techniques had not been used and an attack had been carried out on a major American city with resulting mass casualties? Would our intelligence agencies then be criticized for failing to have done whatever was necessary to keep us safe?
This is not an abstract set of questions. Despite the Obama Administration's spin that all the world now loves America because The One is now President, there are still those who wish to do our nation harm. And while the use of torture is not likely to become an official tool of the United States government, the absolute prohibition against techniques such as water boarding could place us at substantial future risk.
Consider, if a crazed gunman were holding a room full of school children hostage and was about to mow them down with a machine gun, would we want the police to shoot the gunman before he harms the children. Under normal circumstances we would not want the police shooting people. But, given the fact if they don't shoot the guy many innocent young children would die — we all know what we would want done.
And there you have the problem with which both Toomey and the nation continue to struggle. Is torture wrong? Ethically and morally, yes. But, given the rare and particular instance where the torture of one or two individuals could save thousands of lives, it would be ethically and morally wrong not to use it.
Just like with our rhetorical question, it is not possible to answer the torture question yes or no. The only prudent answer is: "it depends." Upon what it depends is the moral ground over which America must now wrestle. It is an important debate because we could literally pay for a wrong answer with our lives.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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