Calling it torture - Dec. 10, 2014

12/10/14

I don’t know about all of y’all, but I mostly understand the world by analogy. Here’s the analogy I’ve been thinking about in relation to the CIA’s defense of their interrogation techniques.

Imagine that a doctor ordered me to go on a liquid diet, avoiding all solid food. Now, I understand that solid food is bad for me and that eating is not only dangerous, but also a sign of weakness on my part. I’m scared, though, because I’ve never gone without it. I’m afraid that I’ll be really, really hungry. So I get a lawyer to write an opinion renaming the act of putting a pork chop in my mouth, chewing and swallowing. From now on, I’m going to call it “enhanced nutrition.”

Later, after photographs are published showing me dining in restaurants, the doctor says to me, “You were eating.” And I say, “No, I was practicing enhanced nutrition, but I don’t eat solid food. Listen to me. I. don’t. eat. solid. food. In response to the fear of hunger, I practiced enhanced nutrition.”

And the doctor says, “OK. You don’t eat solid food. But there was a pork chop in your mouth, and you chewed it and swallowed it.” And I don’t deny it.

This is an Orwellian exercise playing out in front of our eyes. I have no doubt that some of us will believe that enhanced nutrition is not the same as eating solid food. I’m also fairly certain that many of us will endorse the idea that means are justified by ends. As an American, as a person who grew up believing in an ideal America even though I know it has never actually existed, I have to insist that our conduct matters, and that our ends are less important than our means. They’re not unimportant, just less so.

I’m willing to leave to others the debate about whether enhanced nutrition, er, interrogation produced actionable intelligence. I’d like to believe it didn’t, but that seems like the kind of partisan debate in which I have no access to the truth, only to what each side is willing to claim is true. To me, it doesn’t matter, ultimately. What matters is that we need to hold ourselves to the higher standard we’ve always claimed. We had the moral high ground on September 12, 2001, and we mortgaged that territory.