Bush's torture policy tarnished America's moral standing

"The terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 civilians! They behead their prisoners! They send suicide bombers into markets, mosques and police stations! What's so bad about waterboarding them?"

It's impossible to have a public discussion of the Bush administration's decision to use torture on suspected terrorists without hearing a defense that relies on a comparison of inherent evil: "What the terrorists do is so much worse. We only used 'enhanced interrogation techniques' to keep Americans safe."

Let's set aside for now the question of whether torture is effective in extracting information. Though "24's" (fictional) Jack Bauer is a notable exception, many real-life experts say the near-drowning of detainees or slamming them into walls or shackling them to the ceiling is much more likely to produce false confessions than important clues about future attacks. Even interrogations of criminal suspects by civilian police produce more false confessions than you might think.

Under severe duress, a human being will often say whatever his interrogators want to hear, just to stop the pain. But since it seems quite likely that intelligence operatives privy to interrogations, whether using "enhanced" techniques or lawful methods, will continue to weigh in on their effectiveness (For example, Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who helped interrogate high-ranking terrorist Abu Zubaydah, wrote an essay in The New York Times last week in which he denounced "false claims magnifying the effectiveness of ... techniques like waterboarding."), let's move on.

Let's also not get bogged down in a debate over whether the word "torture" is justified for tactics that include waterboarding a detainee, whether one time or 183 times. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who knows a thing or two about interrogation of prisoners, says waterboarding is "torture. Period." I take his word for it.

For now, let's just stick to the "we're the good guys" argument.

If we Americans are the good guys, if we're going to go around the world as the champions of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, if we're going to demand punishment for pirates, tyrants and Pol Pots, don't we have to actually practice what we preach? If we're the "shining city upon a hill," "the last, best hope of earth," aren't we required to inhabit a higher moral plane than homicidal theo-fascists?

When President Bush could no longer use fear of WMDs or al-Qaida connections to justify ousting Saddam Hussein, the president settled on the "spread of democratic values" to the region as his rationale. At the very least, then, Bush should have insisted that the U.S. conduct itself in a manner that made clear we take those values very seriously. Among our fundamental precepts are respect for human rights, adherence to international law and a respect for the rules of war as recognized by civilized nations. When Bush sacrificed those to expediency — or zealotry — he lost his remaining rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

Even in the harrowing months that followed the atrocities of 9/11, there was no excuse for violating the Geneva Conventions. While Bush defenders point to a climate in which the White House feared other attacks might be imminent, al-Qaida at its worst has never represented an existential threat to the United States. If American leaders resisted elevating torture to official policy in World War II, when the Axis might well have won the war, surely Bush and Dick Cheney could have done the same.

Of course, al-Qaida and its ilk are savage and brutal, killing indiscriminately. Their beliefs in no way represent mainstream Islam; indeed, their barbarism finally succeeded in alienating them from fellow Muslims in parts of Iraq, a turning point that helped U.S. troops quell the violence.

When the U.S. engages in torture, we blur the distinctions between us and them. We alienate our allies and give comfort to our enemies. We lose the moral authority to sit in judgment of countries where human rights are routinely trampled and detainees regularly mistreated.

According to many accounts, there were officers in the intelligence services who were sickened by the abuse of prisoners and wanted nothing to do with it. They represented the United States at its best. They actually believed in the values they were willing to give their lives to defend.

That's more than can be said for the man who was then serving as their commander-in-chief.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.

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