There is an argument about torture floating around the punditsphere, Richard Cohen's variation goes something like this: After 9/11, an event unlike any other in the history of any civilized nation (not true), Americans strongly supported President Bush in his aggressive pursuit of the terrorist evildoers. Some leading American legal minds, such as Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz (I'm not making this up) openly mused about using torture of one form or another on certain terrorist suspects. In addition, it is logically possible that someone tell the truth while under torture–a fact no one can deny (or has denied, by the way, because it's not the point). On top of this, the people in their love of the TV show "24" and their high approval rating of Bush wanted torture, so it would therefore be wrong to prosecute or punish the people who waterboarded or otherwise tortured terrorist suspects or just suspects.
I don't think I'm being uncharitable. Here's his conclusion:
That, though, was the other country called the Past. In the country called the Present, certain people are demanding that the torturers and their enablers be dragged across the time border and brought to justice. There are many practical difficulties involved, but the impetus is understandable: A nation that once posed to the world as lawful and civil turned out to be brutish and indifferent to international law. We tortured. So says the incoming attorney general, Eric Holder. We tortured. So says the person in charge of deciding such matters at Guantanamo. That question has been answered. Now comes another: What are we going to do about it?
President Obama's inclination, it seems, is to not do anything much. "I don't believe anybody is above the law," he recently said. "On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."
This is a nifty formulation that ignores reality; to look forward, you need to know where you've been. In other words, if we do not find out precisely how our government came to waterboard at least three suspects and abuse others, we will not know how to ensure that the future doesn't wind up looking much like the past.
At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives — and maybe were — and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs — not time-stampers who take no chances.
The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us. We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe. So, it is important, as well as fair, not to punish those who did what we wanted done — back when we lived, scared to death, in a place called the Past.
I think this argument blows for at least three reasons. First, not everyone wanted these things to be done. Second, the feeling of support (however great) for patently illegal, immoral, and impractical activities such as torture does not make them any less illegal, immoral, or impractical. Third, whether or not the will of the people had clearly expressed the specialness of the circumstances in their choice of TV show or Alan Dershowitz (how do you measure that anyway?), there still remain the more fundamental expressions of the will of the people–the constitution, our history of prosecuting people for waterboarding, the treaties and conventions practiced by our team–not to mention the more recent (and contradictory) expressions of our government's view on torture–such as, the arguments used against Saddam Hussein at his trial and before the execution of the war in Iraq, the arguments against the Taliban, and so forth–that stand as evidence that we do not and did not consider torture a legitimate legal practice. Finally, a fourth reason, people in positions of authority ought to know better than to erect legal sophistries to justify practices which are obviously illegal, immoral and impractical. They are elected and sworn to uphold the constitution for this purpose.