Their country was under attack. On one quiet morning in the late summer, men flew airplanes into their cities and thousands died. These men came from a faraway land and the dead had done nothing to invite their wrath. Most of those who perished were apolitical, simply average people carrying out the daily rituals of their lives, unaware that this morning would be their last.
The country's leaders were desperate. They had no idea where the next attack was coming from or how bad it would be. They viewed the men in the airplanes as vicious enemies, unworthy of humane consideration. They wanted to save their people from further fear and agony.
In one of their prisons sat a young man who had worked with the attackers, helping them to plan and execute their assault. Maybe he knew something. Maybe he could provide some detail that would help them ward off the next attack. Maybe if they could break him, they could save hundreds or even thousands of their fellow citizens. Maybe they were simply consumed with rage at what had happened to their country. Whatever the motivation, they decided that they knew what they had to do.
And so they tortured John McCain.
Don’t you dare assume that I am suggesting a moral equivalence between the hijackers of 9/11 and the bomber pilots of the Vietnam War. I am doing nothing of the sort. The former were unqualified brutes whose sole motivation was to bring misery to the innocent. The latter were honorable men who believed that their actions were helping provide freedom to the Vietnamese and ultimately protecting their own homeland from the threat of a rapacious empire and its cruel totalitarian philosophy. John McCain is, whatever his faults, a decent and courageous human being; Mohammed Atta was scum.
Instead, my point is that the use of torture can always be rationalized. The same arguments that pass the lips of our current political leadership have been rehearsed throughout history by those who dehumanize and then brutalize. If you contort logic and principle carefully enough, any end can be made to justify any means. But nobody back in the 1960s argued that the Communists' use of torture was wrong because we were the good guys. They insisted that it was wrong because, at some deeper level that transcends strategy and philosophy, it was simply barbaric and unworthy of civilized people.
The Vietnam War was a hopelessly flawed mission, commissioned by arrogant intellectuals, justified by duplicitious politicians, commanded by delusional generals, and fought by brave, good, and self-sacrificing young Americans who deserved better from their superiors. But even Lyndon Johnson and William Westmoreland had a core of humanity that could not be breached. Even as the losses mounted and the humiliation grew, they refused to resort to torture.
No, if there is a moral equivalence between the thugs who abused John McCain and the actions that have taken place during the Iraq War, it is the responsibility of those leaders who, out of shock or fear or anger, decided that the United States of America would join the list of regimes that torture their enemies. And never forget that they knew it was wrong. When Lynndie England and her colleagues at Abu Ghraib were exposed visiting inhuman brutality on their captives, nobody in the Bush administration came to their defense. Nobody spoke then about the need for enhanced interrogation techniques to save American lives. Instead, they kept silent, denounced the atrocities, and insisted that "we don't torture". We now know that they were lying, but it was the fact that they understood the need to lie that remains the most incriminating piece of evidence against them.
And now, finally, comes word of just how organized the effort was and just how high up it reached. They actually sat in a room, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld and (God help us) Colin Powell, and they personally directed who would be tortured and to what degree. Perhaps they did not all consent to the actions that took place, but they all sat there without leaving the room, phoning their secretaries, and dictating a letter of resignation. Leave it to John Ashcroft—poor, overmatched, overwhelmed John Ashcroft—to provide the single, inadequate cautionary voice, speculating out loud that the activities taking place inside that room would be judged harshly by history. But he didn’t quit either.
The question is not whether the need for information was acute. Of course it was. They truly did have no idea when, where, or how devastating the next attack would be. Most of them probably did fear for the safety of the American people and they were surely motivated by a desire to prevent the next terrorist atrocity. None of them, I'm sure, took any pleasure in what they were doing (though I suppose I shouldn't necessarily speak for Cheney).
But that's the point, really. Torture can always be justified, if that's what we set out to do. Indeed, that is why we make it illegal and why we make that illegality unequivocal. History tells us that the temptation to torture can be enormous and that people consumed by a focus on ends often find themselves becoming increasingly permissive about the means. That's the reason we say no ahead of time.