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When torture feels right

October 10, 2006|JOEL STEIN |

IAM PRO-TORTURE. And I don't mean just the music-blaring, sleep-deprivation, forced-standing kind. I'm for tearing out lamp wires, wetting a guy down and shocking his nipples while staring at him with your one crazy blue eye and one crazy green eye and screaming, "I am not going to ask you again! Where is the bomb?!" Admittedly, most of what I know about interrogation is from the TV show "24."

Although we have killed more than 50,000 Iraqis for reasons that no one is able to explain other than that letting crazy, anti-Western, death-cult Arabs vote for their own crazy, anti-Western, death-cult Arab leaders is awesome, we have decided that we cannot accept mistreating captured enemies. Apparently we are under the impression that countries fond of using "shock and awe" are actually judged on how many Michelin stars their prisons get.

Compared to murder, maiming or the firebombing of entire cities, torturing for information is clearly the lesser moral crime. The reason we don't like torture is that it makes us squeamish. When we drop bombs on a village from thousands of feet above, we picture clean, video-game annihilation -- not severed limbs and charred skin and babies killed in front of their parents. But it's impossible not to visualize dunking a man's head underwater until he believes he's drowning. We may not have had our homes bombed, but we have been in a pool with older kids. This is why not even Donald Rumsfeld would sign off on interrogation by extreme wedgie.

Torture seems wrong because it involves hitting a guy when he's down. It's fine to fight for the survival of civilization by shooting your enemy in the field, but once he's captured, warfare is suddenly a civilized game with lots of rules. This idea is so patently ridiculous that they made a sitcom out of it with Bob Crane.

My fear is that by banning torture, we get to pretend that the rest of war is a rational diplomatic tool instead of a desperate and brutal survival response. If something is important enough to kill and die over, then it's important enough to torture for. For me, that list would include protecting my freedom, my family and a few of my friends whom I would name here if I had that kind of room.

If "waterboarding" really isn't effective, yielding only lies told to please captors, then maybe that's a good reason to end it. But if shooting people to get them to embrace pro-Western democracy also doesn't pan out, we might want to lighten up on that too.

Torture isn't good for international public relations, but neither is preemptive invasion. In fact, the world community seems to look more unfavorably on our napalming of Vietnamese than the Viet Cong's mistreatment of our prisoners. If you think the MIA-POW banner is powerful, then you've never encountered the stark beauty of the "Flaming Gasoline Jelly Feels Burny" flag.

TURNING PEOPLE'S bodies against their minds so that they have no faculty for choice is the purest form of dehumanization. Short of killing them, that is. It also probably isn't so good for the torturers, subjecting them -- if modern Germany is an example -- to a lifetime of consuming really creepy porn. But if there are times when murder is acceptable, then are times when torture is allowable too. These situations are rare, although they seem to be faced by Kiefer Sutherland exactly once per hour.

So let's stop distracting ourselves with discussions about how we conduct this war -- whether we should torture, send more soldiers, fire Rumsfeld, keep subjecting soldiers to Al Franken's Saddam Hussein impression -- and discuss the only relevant question: What is it we're doing over there? And if whatever the answer turns out to be is worth losing our soldiers for, then it must be worth torturing our enemies for information.

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