Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Republican presidential candidates' debate Tuesday was the fact that almost all the candidates implicitly -- and in some cases explicitly and even enthusiastically -- endorsed torture as a legitimate government activity in the era of terror. Fox News honcho Brit Hume set it up with a hypothetical situation -- suicide attacks on three shopping malls, a fourth group of would-be attackers caught before they attacked and taken to Guantanamo, another attack expected imminently on the basis of soild intelligence. So how aggressively would these guys want those terrorists questioned?
John McCain, who has actually experienced torture, was forthright enough, saying that torture might be used in a one-in-a-million case but in 999,999 cases it should be unacceptable -- because it's not about the terrorists but about what kind of country this is. He also made the point that -- as every person with interrogation experience I've talked to agrees, and I've talked to more than I ever thought I would in the last few years -- inflicting physical and psychological pain cases the subject to say what he thinks you want to hear -- not the truth (though in very rare cases that might happen), but whatever will stop the pain.
There's a mock-macho attitude abroad in this country that wants to find reasons to justify torture. But the notion that it is an efficacious way to get accurate information about potential threats is the stuff of spy novels and TV shows, not reality. The only reason to want to torture is to want to punish bad guys in an especially cruel and sadistic manner. Yet people who want to be seen as tough realists are all too eager to endorse the idea. Perhaps it's part of the coarseness (pardon the understatement) that generally becomes more prominent in a society during wartime.
Sp here were most of the candidates ready to endorse torture as official policy, at least in a worst-case hypothetical. Some took refuge in the verbal dodge of "enhanced interrogation techniques," even denying that it would amount to real torture, but Ron Paul had it right when he said "It sounds like Newspeak." (Though even Ron's following comment crept right up to the edge of endorsing torture himself.)
Predictably the worst were Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, who seemed almost eager to let people know they endorsed sadism as government policy. But Mitt Romney was particularly expansive on the subject, not just in the debate but in an interview following by the generally despicable Sean Hannity. Rudy, of course, had to show how tough he is.
Even more troubling was the presumably all-Republican audience that sat on its hands while McCain made the case against torture, but applauded whenever anyone else endorsed torture.
It's becoming a meaner and nastier country.