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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Tortured Logic of the Torturers

The terrorists have won.

Despite its roots as a tool of interrogation during the Spanish Inquisition, the nominee for U.S. attorney general isn't prepared to call waterboarding what it is -- torture.

In a letter to skeptical Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Michael B. Mukasey claimed that though he found waterboarding personally "repugnant," its usefulness had to be determined "solely on the actual facts, circumstances, and legal standards presented."

With those weasel words, we've officially entered the medieval phase of American history. Mr. Mukasey, like his patron, the president of the United States, doesn't mind moral confusion as long as it guarantees a measure of deniability down the road.

In Washington, it's always about what's legal -- not what's moral in the eyes of God or man. Besides, as the fever-soaked Ivan Karamazov pointed out in Dostoevsky's brilliant tale of spiritual malaise, there's always the possibility that God doesn't exist, so everything is "legal" in the end anyway.

In recent weeks, a mantra that hasn't been heard since the 15th century has begun echoing through the bloodless salons of the conservative punditry -- "waterboarding isn't torture."

You can hear refined versions of the chant on any number of Fox News programs from O'Reilly on down. On the outer fringes of reality, radio talk show host Michael Savage bellowed his outrage at "liberals" for stigmatizing a technique that doesn't do enough damage to terrorists as far as he's concerned.

Closer to the mainstream, the long-suffering Mika Brezinski had to hold her tongue recently while Joe Scarborough lectured his Imus-starved audience about "all of the intelligence" allegedly gathered through simulated drowning of al-Qaida suspects.

"For those who don't know, waterboarding is what we did to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," Mr. Scarborough said, rebuffing Ms. Brezinski's attempt to inject sanity into MSNBC's "Morning Joe" before it went completely off the rails.

While absurdly maintaining that he didn't "approve" of torture, Mr. Scarborough insisted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed became a terrorist snitch because of waterboarding. This is the identical rationale Vice President Dick Cheney trotted out last year when he said waterboarding "is a no-brainer for me" before deadpanning, "We don't torture."

Isn't it interesting that folks who can calculate when life begins down to the mysterious movement of the zygote in utero aren't able to say with assurance what torture is even when someone is choking in front of them?

It is especially fascinating to note that in this ostensibly "Christian" nation, personal security has become such an idol that 90 percent of us would approve the waterboarding of suspects to avert another 9/11, according to Mr. Scarborough.

Never mind that waterboarding was the preferred method of torture used by agents of the Dutch East India Company during the 1600s. Never mind that both the Gestapo and Japanese officers used it during the darkest days of World War II to humiliate their victims and flout international law.

When I visited the Torture Museum in Amsterdam a few years ago, I was struck by the ingenuity of the instruments that broke so many spirits and took so many lives over the centuries.

Torture was a function of governments and ecclesiastical bodies -- and rarely criminal sadists.

Folks who claimed to distrust their government's ability to tax them fairly somehow found it easy to defer to its wisdom when it came to torture.

Those who prostrated themselves before a tortured Savior every Sunday rarely thought about the broken bodies and spirits of their "enemies."

As long as the hearts of the torturers were pure and their actions sanctioned by God and country, the torture of others was an acceptable price to pay for security. Despite our technological advances, very little has changed since the "heresy" trials of old Europe. We're still lying to ourselves about torture.

Maybe we aren't really re-entering a medieval period. Maybe we never truly left our brutal superstitions behind. Given our tolerance for torture, maybe we're more like the terrorists than we'd like to admit.

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Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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