Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently proposed an amendment to a defense appropriations bill in an attempt to plug loopholes in already existing anti-torture laws. The amendment, which President Bush opposes, is a good idea for America but not necessarily for the reasons cited by most critics of the administration.
Contrary to popular belief, throughout history torture has brought results either to gain critical, sometimes lifesaving intelligence or more gratuitously to obtain embarrassing confessions from terrified captives.
The question, then, for a liberal democracy is not whether torture in certain cases is effective, but whether its value is worth the negative publicity and demoralizing effect on a consensual society that believes its cause and methods must enjoy a moral high ground far above the enemy's.
Nor can opponents of torture say that it is entirely foreign to the U.S. military experience, at least from what we know of it even in so-called good wars like World War II. There were American soldiers sometimes in furor over the loss of comrades, sometimes to obtain critical information who executed or tortured captured Japanese and German prisoners. Those who did so operated on a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" understanding, occasionally found it effective and were rarely punished by commanding officers. Even so, G.I.s never descended to the levels of depravity common in the Wehrmacht or the Soviet and Imperial Japanese armies.
There is also not much to the argument that our employment of torture will only embolden the enemy to barbarously treat Americans held captive. What a silly idea! Captured Americans have already been filmed being beheaded or shot or burned and their mutilated corpses hung up for public ridicule.
We know from both its professed creed and its conduct in the field that al-Qaida cares nothing for civilized behavior. Its barbarism is innate, not predicated on any notion of reciprocity. Beheading and torturing prisoners occurred before the sexual humiliation so amply photographed at Abu Ghraib. U.S. soldiers already grasp what surrendering to al-Qaida terrorists would mean; they've seen other Westerners appearing hooded and in jumpsuits on the Internet before losing their heads to choruses of "Allah Akhbar."
Others argue that by employing torture we will only earn the censure of the liberal, especially European, world. Maybe so, but once again, Europe, the United Nations and international human-rights groups, for reasons that transcend the war in Iraq, will fault the United States no matter what it does.
Castigating our misdemeanors, while mostly ignoring the felonies of real barbarians, seems to ensure these sidelined utopians a sense of easy moral smugness. We see that in regard to Guantanamo Bay. Europeans fixate on American interrogations of captive murderous terrorists but remain silent about thousands who have been killed, tortured or forgotten in Fidel Castro's gulag a few miles away. Iran, North Korea, Serbia and Saddam's Iraq tortured and executed tens of thousands without much fear that either the United Nations or the Europeans would spend their own lives and treasure to stop such endemic barbarism.
There is also a danger that once we try to quantify precisely what constitutes torture, we could, in the ensuing utopian debate, define anything from sleep deprivation to loud noise as unacceptable. Indeed, we might achieve the unintended effect of only creating disdain for our moral pretensions from incarcerated terrorists. They would have no worries of suffering pain but plenty of new demands on their legalistic hosts, from ethnically correct meals to proper protocols in handling their Korans.
So we might as well admit that by foreswearing the use of torture, we will probably be at a disadvantage in obtaining key information and perhaps endanger American lives here at home. (And, ironically, those who now allege that we are too rough will no doubt decry "faulty intelligence" and "incompetence" should there be another terrorist attack on an American city.) Our restraint will not ensure any better treatment for our own captured soldiers. Nor will our allies or the United Nations appreciate American forbearance. The terrorists themselves will probably treat our magnanimity with disdain, as if we were weak rather than good.
But all that is precisely the risk we must take in supporting the McCain amendment because it is a public reaffirmation of our country's ideals. The United States can win this global war without employing torture. That we will not resort to what comes so naturally to Islamic terrorists also defines the nobility of our cause, reminding us that we need not and will not become anything like our enemies.