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Americans and waterboarding

Two centuries after the Bill of Rights, a half century after the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners, torture is no longer an evil to be denounced; it’s an open question. “McCain Finds Sympathy on Torture Issue,” a Nov. 16 New York Times headline proclaimed. It doesn’t get any more official than that. Forget earmarks and Social Security; in Election 2008 it looks as if we get to vote on stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and maybe even the rack. And the blogosphere, as usual, has got a head start on arguing what kind of place America wants to be.

With McCain a “courageous” exception among GOP candidates, “The use of torture is fast becoming a core principle of today's Republican party,” conservative Andrew Sullivan asserts at TheAtlantic.com. “My sense is that many in the base are uncomfortable with the defensiveness of the Bush people, and their use of euphemism in this respect.”

Scott Horton, the international law expert who writes the No Comment blog at Harper’s, offers confirmation. He reports that “movement conservatives,” meeting with Attorney General Michael Muskasey before his confirmation hearings, pressed the nominee to protect those in the Bush administration who opened the door to waterboarding and other forms of torture. “There has been no shortage of litmus tests in the past: abortion, gay marriage, the flag amendment—whatever hot-button issue the G.O.P. cooks up for its next election campaign. But the torture litmus test is new,” Horton contends.

The suggestion that conservatives have made torture a political litmus test might be expected to provoke outrage in the right blogosphere. The response, though, has been surprisingly muted.

Some conservative bloggers have adopted the Rudy Giuliani stance. They say they oppose torture, but just aren’t ready to put waterboarding in that category. As Ed Morrissey at Captain’s Quarters writes, “We are back to the issue of whether frightening terrorists amounts to torture, and whether the shocking nature of a technique that raises few safety risks outweighs the value of the lives it might save.” Or as Giuliani himself more succinctly put it, “It depends on how it's done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.”

That agnostic approach has taken heavy flak from the big guns on the other side of the torture divide. Hunter at DailyKos offers a chillingly detailed description of waterboarding, "the things that are not torture." “Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period,” agrees terrorism expert Malcolm Nance at Small Wars Journal. “Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that…when done right is controlled death.” Eric Mueller, law professor at the University of North Carolina, cites decisions from Mississippi courts in the 1920s that found waterboarding to be torture, even in a case where it was used on a young black man charged with killing a white man. “If it was torture in Mississippi, then it's definitely torture, right?” Mueller asks?

For some on the right, though, agnosticism on waterboarding is only for wimps. “Cryptic statements, such as President Bush’s comment that ‘This government does not torture people,’ don’t cut it…,” Deroy Murdock declaims at National Review. “Today’s clueless anti-waterboarding rhetoric merits this tactic’s vigorous defense. Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud.… Though clearly uncomfortable, waterboarding loosens lips without causing permanent physical injuries (and unlikely even temporary ones). If terrorists suffer long-term nightmares about waterboarding, better that than more Americans crying themselves to sleep after their loved ones have been shredded by bombs or baked in skyscrapers.”

Which prompts Joe Carter to wonder: “How degraded has conservatism become?” Noting the opposition to torture by McCain and other former military leaders, Carter, a former Marine and now director of web communications at the Family Research Council, writes at the Evangelical Outpost: “As Christians we must never condone the use of methods that threaten to undermine the inherent dignity of the person created in the image of God. Murdock may believe there is nothing “repugnant” about waterboarding. But there is something clearly repugnant about our unwillingness to distance ourselves from the fear-driven utilitarians willing to embrace the use of torture.”

Lest you think that all Christians agree, don’t stop with Carter’s post; read the comments, too. Monty Python had it right. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

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