Here's the problem. George W. Bush believes in the basic decency of his fellow citizens. Many leading human rights supporters, on the other hand, do not. Or, perhaps to be more charitable, they lack the confidence to put that decency to the test.
Against all evidence, Bush stands behind the presidential seal—Harry Truman's presidential seal—and, in the sort of clear, declarative sentence uttered only by the spotlessly honest or the hopelessly corrupt, says simply, "We do not torture." Almost nobody believes him, of course, not even the D.C. press corps that will nevertheless transcribe his remarks without comment for the morning broadsheets. Maybe his mother is persuaded; his dad certainly knows better.
Still, Bush says it. And he says it because he presumes that no other answer is acceptable. However tempted he might be to swagger to the microphone and promise that no stone will be unturned and no electrode detached until the terrorists are stopped, he invariably defaults to the same four-word response. Even after six desensitizing years of nearly non-stop bloodshed, Bush fears the outrage that might ensue if the popular appetite for human debasement proves no match for his own.
On the other side of the debate, those who oppose simulated drowning, sleep-deprivation, and bestial behavior in general have their own four-word mantra: "Torture does not work." It is an odd debating tactic, not least because it can be read as an invitation to the more indelicate of the redneck de Sades to come back to the table when they find more effective cruelties. Beyond that, however, it is a statement that implicitly concedes the moral argument and simply frames the issue in utilitarian terms. Worst of all, it betrays an attitude that Americans are a bloodthirsty lot who cannot be depended upon to reject even the most inhumane techniques so long as they get the job done.
Nearly as bad is the argument that we must not torture our enemies because we do not want our own sons and daughters in captivity to meet the same fate. Once again, the condescension is unmistakable, the virtuous appealing to their ethical inferiors in the only language they could possibly understand. Don't play with fire, children, or the troops might get burned. That these insults are delivered unintentionally does not diminish their sting, nor the resentment they almost certainly generate.
There is, however, a second, larger problem. These increasingly shopworn slogans are not only demeaning to their target audience they are also, in many cases, provably wrong. For some people, under some circumstances, torture almost certainly does work. Alan Dershowitz, a veritable fountain of bad ideas ever since the towers fell, points out correctly that the Nazi version of enhanced interrogation regularly forced damaging betrayals from the mouths of members of the French underground. Further, John McCain's very presence on the national stage is a persistent reminder that torturers are rarely deterred by the degree of moral behavior exhibited by their opponents. We could deliver Guatánamo to Fidel and beat the waterboards into plowshares and still the barbarians would be unmoved.
The only solution, then, is to gather the chips before us and go all in on the proposition that the American people possess a core decency that, in the end, will not allow them to make common cause with the armchair Torquemadas at the Justice Department and in the office of the Vice President. Effective or not, we must argue, torture is simply evil, regardless of whose fingers are turning the thumbscrews. Even if we can purchase a little more security by inflicting unbearable pain, the price is too high. Give us humanity, or give us death!
We will not persuade everyone, of course. As the past several years have painfully revealed, there are authentic sadists among us; they spill their hollow, twisted ids into glib, nasty blogs every morning and call it patriotism. As well, there will be those whose all-embracing cowardice compels them to support any degradation that will make them feel even a tiny bit safer during their next flight home for the holidays.
Make no mistake: we may lose this argument. But it is, in the end, the only one that we can possibly win. And time is growing short. A new generation is rising, and we must not let them grow up to think that everything they have seen since 2001 is normal.