Commentary: What price will we pay to protect our principles?

Americans engaged in the debate about torture are taking part in one of the most important discussions a society can have. If honestly faced, the arguments on all sides may reveal the character and priorities of the country: What matters more, human rights or human life; the rule of law or the security of a nation? So far, however, an indispensable piece for a truly useful debate has remained outside the conversation.

Until now, the discussion has gone something like this: Opponents of torture say torture simply doesn't work, producing only false confessions. Proponents of harsh interrogation say the questionable methods are indisputably required to secure the country. This argument fails to scratch the surface. It takes us nowhere.

If it is true that torture produces only unreliable information then there is nothing to discuss. There is no moral dilemma. If, on the other hand, torture does elicit the kind of information that can prevent terrorist attacks and save human lives, then Americans must make a truly excruciating, but critically important decision.

Forget for a moment that disgraced former Vice President Dick Cheney is the man calling for the release of evidence about whether or not the euphemistically labeled "enhanced interrogation techniques" worked. The fact that Cheney, one of the least popular men in America, says the memos should come out does not mean they should remain secret. Cheney mistakenly believes that once we are offered proof that torture saved lives the discussion will end. He is wrong about that. If we all agree that torture works, that's when the debate only begins.

Picture Daniel Pearl – many now call him "Danny," as if he had become a personal friend. The American reporter captured by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002 was slowly decapitated by Khalid Sheik Mohammed while a video camera recorded the horror for the world to see.

Mohammed, who was "water boarded" by U.S. interrogators, proudly proclaimed he was the man brandishing the knife that cut across Pearl's throat.

What if torture could have produced a piece of information to prevent the murder? What if torture could have prevented 9/11 and allowed thousands of children, wives, parents and friends to continue enjoying the company and attention of their parents, spouses and loved ones killed in the attacks?

It goes without saying that human life is precious. Is it, however, more valuable than anything else? Is it more valuable than the principles upon which a democracy is founded? Anyone who claims these are easy questions is not serious about this discussion.

The United States is not the first country to face this wrenching moral dilemma. After decades of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks, Israelis have wrestled with this question for years.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that torture is, in fact, illegal, famously declaring that "a democracy must fight with one hand tied behind its back." Writing in the Harvard Law Review in 2002, then-president of the court Aharon Barak argued that, "judges in modern democracies are responsible for protecting democracy both from terrorism and from the means the state wants to use to fight terrorism." Democracy itself, he explained, is under attack not just from terrorists but also from the very methods that can prove effective for fighting terrorism.

Is protecting democracy more important than protecting life? Ask the people who have given their lives fighting for democracy. There are less philosophical arguments against torture, such as the ones President Barack Obama and others have made. America's standing in the world diminishes when people know it engages in torture and this hurts the fight against terrorists and other enemies.

A necessary conversation

In addition, the prospect of torture in captivity makes enemy fighters less likely to surrender.

Those points, however well taken, go back to the less-profound question of whether or not torture ultimately works.

The necessary conversation, not just for America but for all democracies – nations that value human life, morality and the rule of law – is what price we are willing to pay to protect those sacrosanct principles?

No debate will tell us more about who we are and who we want to be.

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