Mitch’s old post on the McCain Amendment just received a thoughtful comment, almost one year later, from a commenter who points out some of the unpleasant realities of the practice known as “waterboarding.” It really does sound bad. Is the commenter’s characterization accurate? I don’t know but it seems plausible.
Let’s stipulate that waterboarding is torture. I think it is but I could be mistaken. It’s clearly a lot less damaging to suspects than are many traditional tortures. If, as the commenter claims, few people can last more than 14 seconds then so much the better. They can reveal what they know and go on to live their lives, though perhaps imprisoned, at least in one piece physically.
The real question is what to do instead of waterboarding people whom we think have valuable information. Currently we tacitly allow torture by other countries to which we and our allies send suspects for interrogation. The recent UK bomb plot was stopped based on information gained from such a suspect who was sent to Pakistan and tortured. We are going to have more such ticking-bomb situations in the future. Should we observe all of the niceties and accept a higher rate of successful attacks by terrorists? Should we waterboard some suspects ourselves? Should we extradite them to places such as Pakistan and Jordan and look the other way when they are tortured (really tortured)? These are the only options. Choose one. There is no free lunch.
I agree with Wretchard and other commentators (and, I think, President Bush) who argue that public officials who oppose torture of terror suspects should explain why as-yet-theoretical risks of civil-rights violations of suspects outweigh demonstrated risks of mass-death from terror attacks. I am not saying that people who oppose torture have no case, only that they should make one. So far they have mainly asserted that torture is bad without comparing it to the alternatives and weighing the costs and benefits. That’s an evasion. We should have a debate.
Or perhaps, by their silence on the cost/benefit issue, torture opponents have already conceded the argument. I hope that’s not the case. I think the country would be better off to debate this and other important issues openly.