Krauthammer’s weak torture defense

KRAUTHAMMER’S WEAK TORTURE DEFENSE…. The first five words of Charles Krauthammer’s latest column were terrific: “Torture is an impermissible evil.” I haven’t agreed with a Krauthammer sentence in years, so this was a delightful surprise. Torture is an impermissible evil, we’re not evil, we’re not permitted to do the impermissible, so we end up with the right policy. Finally, a consensus.

Regrettably, Krauthammer didn’t end the column after the first sentence.

Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent’s life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, “You do what you have to do.” And then take the responsibility.

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever…. [It is] imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great…. We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can’t know that until we have information. Catch-22.

Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding.

The column goes on to explain that torture was an effective method of acquiring intelligence; torture is routinely the most efficient way of gathering information; torture saved American lives; and it’s all Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fault anyway.

So, when Krauthammer says torture is an “impermissible evil,” he means it, except for the part about it being impermissible, and the part about it being evil.

The Washington Post‘s Dan Froomkin did a very nice job taking on Krauthammer’s entire column, point by point, highlighting the series of errors of fact and judgment. But I just wanted to point out how wildly unpersuasive Krauthammer’s two “exceptions” are.

First, the “ticking time bomb” is a tired cliche most often used by people who’ve seen a few too many episodes of “24.” It’s fine in the realm of fantasy, but Krauthammer suggests these imaginary scenarios should help shape a federal policy and an exception to the rule of law. That’s silly.

And second, the idea that torture is acceptable when officials believe a detainee has “high-value information likely to save lives” is a recipe for creating building-sized loopholes to laws prohibiting torture. Every government or terrorist network can justify all torture with such a ridiculous standard. The Japanese tortured in World War II because they thought they’d captured “a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives.” Did that make it right? Did it stop us from labeling their conduct “war crimes”?

As Kevin Drum put it, “Krauthammer’s exception isn’t an exception. It can justify practically anything, either from us or from anyone else. It’s essentially the end of the civilized consensus against torture. Unfortunately, I imagine that’s the point.”