Monday, April 27, 2009


Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter and Evangelical Christian, wrote this in The Washington Post today, as part of his defense of Bush interrogation policies:

Few Americans would object to the slapping of a terrorist during questioning, for example, if this yielded important intelligence. The coercion would be minimal; the goal of saving lives, overriding. Few Americans, on the other hand, would support pressuring a terrorist by torturing his child. Such a heinous act could not be justified in pursuit of an inherently uncertain outcome -- securing information that may or may not prevent greater loss of life.

What Gerson is trying to tell us is that -- unlike those silly, zealous anti-torture absolutists -- most normal people make careful, thoughtful distinctions between the rough stuff and, y'know, the really rough stuff. And, guided by fine moral compasses, they know what lines to draw.

I'm not sure I believe that. At the very least, I'd like to see some proof.

I want to see a poll question on torturing the child of a terrorism suspect. I'm sure the approval numbers would be lower than for torture of the suspect himself, but there's some considerable distance for that number to fall -- in the most recent Washington Post/ABC poll, when asked whether "there are cases in which the United States should consider torture against terrorism suspects," 69% of Republicans said yes (as did 48% of respondents overall). Note that the question didn't ask about, say, waterboarding, which many people (Republicans especially) would say isn't torture -- the question asked about torture. Nearly seven out of ten Republicans think torture could be just the ticket sometimes.

Why is Gerson so certain that a significant percentage of Americans wouldn't say any technique used on anyone in the name of anti-terrorism is OK?

Americans voted for George W. Bush less than a year after learning about Abu Ghraib. Americans were told a number of times that American forces were imprisoning the relatives of suspected insurgents in order to put pressure on those insurgents. None of this seemed to bother a certain segment of the American population very much (and it certainly didn't seem to offend the moral sensibilities of Michael Gerson). Why should we be so sure that, if asked, they wouldn't put the two together and say "Go for it"? Why should we be so sure that they (especially the Bush/Limbaugh/Murdoch propaganda swallowers) wouldn't give the green light to any tactic?

I'm sure if the Bush White House had issued orders that the children of suspected terrorists were to be tortured, the Gersons of the world would see a fine moral line, and would declare that the Bushies were on the Godly side of the line. The pro-torture members of the public would just say, "Screw 'em. They're terrorist scum. Do whatever you have to do."

Gerson and I disagree on this. That's why I'd like to see the question polled.

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