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Torture unlimited

April 27, 2009 |  2:15 pm

Dick Cheney is pressing for the release of memos that he claims will vindicate the usefulness of "enhanced interrogation tactics," including waterboarding. Even if he's right, his gambit is a reminder of a flaw in the argument that, say, waterboarding can be justified because it produced information that could avert another 9/11.

The problem, as lawyers say, is that the argument proves too much. It justifies not only waterboarding, sleep deprivation and pushing prisoners into a wall -- the sort of tactics Bush administration lawyers strained to exclude from the definition of torture -- but also even more horrific measures.

Let's assume that waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed (who, like JFK and LBJ, is often referred to by his initials) produced information that allowed the U.S. government to avert a planned attack on Los Angeles. Why, given the thousands of lives at stake, should the CIA have stopped there if KSM hadn't capitulated? Why not pluck out one of his eyes or castrate him to prove that we meant business? In the moral calculus the Cheneyites are urging on us, abusing a couple of terrorists is an acceptable price to pay for vital intelligence. The logic of the argument doesn't distinguish between waterboarding and blinding or amputating a limb.

If Cheney and his apologists had the courage of their convictions, they would repudiate George W. Bush's repeated assertions that "we do not torture," because their efficacy argument trumps that position regardless of how "torture" is defined.

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