Dick Cheney’s insistence that President Obama has made America less safe by defining waterboarding as torture and making CIA interrogators abide by the US Army Field Manual has provoked much laughter and derision on the left. It shouldn’t. Read Mark Danner’s latest essay on torture in the New York Review of Books and you’ll appreciate why the proper response to Cheney’s predictably self-serving claims should be to engage his argument and educate Americans about why he’s wrong.
Why is this necessary? It’s necessary because, as Danner notes, "It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that torture’s illegality, or the political harm it may do to the country’s reputation, is not sufficient to discourage the willingness of many Americans to countenance it." It is not sufficient because torture in post-9/11 America is not only a set of coercive interrogation procedures applied to detainees in the ‘war on terror.’ It is also "a marker of political commitment," as Danner aptly puts it – a barometer of how far America’s leaders are willing to go to protect citizens from attack. The fact that torture became officially sanctioned after 9/11 has been apparent for a while now (I suggested as much here, back in 2003, when fewer details were available but the general drift was clear). What hasn’t been apparent is what torture has actually done to make America safer.
To many liberals and progressives (myself included), this is a secondary issue – morality alone should lead us to ban torture in all cases. But to many others, torture still conjures up images of Jack Bauer racing to stop "ticking bombs" from inflicting massive carnage in the heartland. The emotional pull of this potent image may seem silly to people who have read enough to know such scenarios are largely a myth. But many people haven’t read enough. As Danner suggests, the best solution is to appoint a bipartisan commission to examine what torture actually yielded over the past eight years, and then to weigh these findings against the vast secondary costs (moral, political, strategic) that have been incurred.