WASHINGTON - Like many Americans, I have been thinking about torture.
I have been studying arguments for why President Bush and Vice President Cheney oppose the Senate's efforts to ban all American operatives, including the CIA, from using it. And I have been prowling around the impassioned rhetoric against torture of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican.
"We do not torture," Mr. Bush said on Nov. 7 while in Latin America. That was not astute.
What about the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, after which American casualties in Iraq doubled?
What about former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (now the attorney general) rationalizing the use of torture and disparaging the Geneva Conventions?
What about the federal government's own determination that prisoners have been tortured by Americans?
What about the CIA's apparent involvement in the deaths of four detainees?
Millions of people around the world believe Americans torture terrorist suspects. A new poll finds that three out of four Americans say they are convinced their government tortures people.
Mr. Cheney privately told Republicans on Capitol Hill the United States should not have a written policy against torture because CIA agents find it a useful tool in getting information. Undoubtedly tongue-lashed by the White House when this leaked out, Republican leaders said maybe they won't have closed-door briefings by high administration officials any more. Not that many of these briefings have been credible.
Mr. McCain, tortured as a prisoner in Vietnam, adamantly favors a ban "on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." He wants Congress to pass a law with that language to clarify America's official antipathy to torture.
It's hard to believe that as America's luster badly tarnishes, we are having this debate. But we are. Mr. Bush, who has not vetoed anything Congress has done, including huge spending bills he said he hates, said he intends to veto any bill with Mr. McCain's language. The basic argument for torture is to try to get information from terrorists that could prevent loss of innocent life. That's compelling.
But the arguments against torture are powerful and pragmatic. It dehumanizes everyone involved. It often fails. The tortured suspect still may not tell the truth. The suspect may be innocent. Torture undermines the U.S. posture to the world that this country stands for human rights. If the United States uses torture, other countries will cite that to justify torture of American POWs.
It seems to me that debating the use of torture now is pointless and very badly timed. For years, there have been accepted practices in U.S. interrogation that work. Changing wake-sleep patterns is one. So is the use of solitary confinement, bland food. and boredom. Playing psychological mind games is another. Sometimes truth drugs work. There is nothing wrong with sharp, constant questioning by teams of interrogators. There is the tried-and-true good cop-bad cop formula. Having informers inside terrorist cells takes time but it works.
Causing discomfort is one thing. Deliberate efforts to cause serious physical pain are not acceptable. Beating someone is never acceptable. Maiming, such as cutting off fingers or toes, is despicable. Mock executions are wrong. Unleashing wild animals against a suspect is horrific. Bringing someone to the point of near drowning is dreadful. The sexual abuse of Abu Ghraib turns the stomach.
There is no evidence that torture has prevented any terrorist actions against the United States. If someday a captured terrorist won't disclose the location of a hidden nuclear bomb, the president personally should make any decision to torture. Exceptions permitting torture should not be written into law.
Surely, in that ethics refresher course the White House made its people take, somebody noted that ethically the end does not justify the means. Cruelty is cruelty. If we adopt the same measures used by Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin, how are we different? How will U.S. torture stop terrorism? The true evil of torture is how it degrades the torturer.
The more we learn about our government's sanctioning of torture, the more we must fear that this putrid blemish on America's reputation will create even more terrorism if Congress does not flatly, pointedly, and publicly forbid it.
Many of those claiming to have been tortured by Americans were never charged with any crime. Some are still being held, without lawyers, without trials, without notification to their relatives.
Torture creates hatred that spreads like waves in an ocean. The families of the tortured will hate forever. The children will grow up with the desire for revenge in their hearts.
Not so long ago America was admired not just for its wealth but for its soul as the country that aimed for the moral high ground. In half a decade that has changed.
Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush can travel around the world talking about democracy until they are blue in the face. But as long as they demand U.S. spies be exempted from rules against torture, their words will not be heard.