Ross’s debut column at the New York Times concerns a counterfactual Cheney run for President in 2008 — fun to spin out, but with its unhappy ending back in reality:

Here Dick Cheney, prodded by the ironies of history into demanding greater disclosure about programs he once sought to keep completely secret, has an important role to play. He wants to defend his record; let him defend it. And let the country judge.

But Cheney has a problem. The ground of defense is not that ‘it got results.’ The issue is not whether torture is capable of producing results, or even the quality of those results. A million monkeys at a million waterboards will eventually produce a confessional masterpiece. Under existential threat, the argument about torture poses the question of whether to start, not when to finish. And the justification of the decision to start has been that this decision had been kept secret. For Cheney to defend his record, he must not only, like a Soloflex salesman, harp on ‘results’; he must defend the secrecy of the methods that obtained them. Secrecy was essential to results.

This reveals an uncomfortable but important truth about how our argument against our torture differs from ‘the’ argument ‘against torture’ — the ethical or theoretical argument. That latter argument can be resolved in reference to the suffering of the victim or the corruption of the perpetrator. Ours , on the other hand, is not. Even someone who justifies the suffering of our victims or the corruption of our perpetrators cannot yet be finished. They must defend the secrecy; in so doing, they must defend trusting the government of a free and equal people to violate the terms of that people’s law, custom, and mores on terms which only the government is to set and know.

How can the country judge this theroetically acceptable? It is so much easier simply to judge torture theoretically acceptable. But we will not judge an official, public torture program acceptable in practice because we cannot justify it even in speech. One way or the other we will insist that this ‘dark chapter’ is only a chapter. And the defensive position will have to move into the following crouch: horrible though it was, those days after all are over; and though we thank God they are, of course, we must recognize that some people sacrificed what we hold dear in order to save us . Dick Cheney, martyr . . .

Another possibility, of course, is that we really do change our laws to permit certain Enhanced Techniques. The worst possibility is that torture is declared over in a public triumph and then, secretly, all over again . . .

More on: Current Affairs, Law

Articles by James Poulos

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