Richard Cohen watches too many movies. For the basis of his op-ed on torture is the ticking time bomb scenario:
Call him Ishmael.
Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing — no, anxious — to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.
Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives — that they will be killed or sexually abused.
He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line — that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.
This is really beginning to sound like a joke: the uber terrorist (played, believably, by Maori actor, Cliff Curtis), who knows our legal system and its "rights" so that his sneering makes Cohen's blood run cold. What about that guy, he wonders, what about that guy?
Well, I'll tell you what about that guy. He is the basis of Cohen's "hard case" moral lesson. A "hard case" should you wonder is a notion used by philosophers of law to think about the limits of general rules and such. But it also sounds like the title of a legal-themed adult movie, which is closer to Cohen's point anyway. Here's the moral lesson:
This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?
Deep thinking. What if blowing up a planet deep in space with creatures uniquely able to suffer pain infinitely saved your child? Would you do it? Well, would you?
In case you weren't shocked by your own willingness to torture people to save "many lives" or "your baby," maybe you'll be impressed by a little bit of absurd moral equivalence:
Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators — they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail — a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated.
No seriously, I didn't alter that at all. He really wrote that. We have reached new levels of badness here. Skipping to the end:
The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions — torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.
First you get a little bit of the "who's to say. . . in this complex modern world of ours" argument–call it the self-serving pseudo skeptical argument. Then Cohen converts it into a full-tilt "both sides" are wrong, there must be some middle ground. Top this off with an almost full tilt ever since 9/11 I've been enraged by Chappaquiddick.