As you push the limits, wherever they may be, to create a situation in which all control rests in your hands, the odds are that you will create an uncontrollable situation as well. From torture to spying, such acts, however contained they may initially appear to be, involve a deep plunge into a dark and perverse pool of human emotions. Torture in particular, but also unlimited forms of surveillance and any other acts which invest individuals secretly with something like the powers of gods, invariably lead to humanity's darkest side. The permission to commit such acts, once released into the world, mutates and spreads like wildfire from top to bottom in any command structure and across all boundaries. You may start out with a relatively small program of secret imprisonment, torture, spying or whatever, meant to achieve limited goals while establishing certain prerogatives of power, but in no case is the situation likely to remain that way for long. This was, perhaps, the true genius of the American system as imagined by its founders -- the understanding that any form of state power left unchecked in the hands of a single person or group of people was likely to degenerate into despotism (or worse), whatever the initial desires of the individuals involved. --Tom Englehardt
There is no general principle to justify torture; it should always be a morally repugnant taboo, an illegal act with severe penalties. Well then, what about the hypothetical situation in which you've captured the terrorist who knows the location of the nuclear bomb that is going to blow New York City off the face of the map? What if torturing the information out of this man gives the only possible hope of finding and defusing the bomb? Isn't torture justified then?
If I had the authority in such a situation, I could see ordering whatever it takes to get the information from the man, even if it required ordering him to be tortured. But after ordering such a thing, I would surrender myself to be arrested and tried, and leave it to the mercy of a court to exonerate me or condemn me based on the particularities of this situation.
I broke the taboo, and the seriousness of my breaking it should not be minimized. I would be guilty and should be prosecuted. At the same time it would be reasonable to expect leniency because of the special circumstances. But such situations are extraordinary and rare, and no general principles can be drawn from them.
The same would be true of ordering a wiretap without a warrant, which should also be perceived as a profoundly serious taboo in a free society. Perhaps there are extraordinary situations in which it might take too much time to get the warrant, and a decision had to be made to authorize a wiretap without it. The same procedure should pertain. Whoever authorizes the warrantless wiretap should submit himself to a court to determine if such a breach were justified. This kind of thing should never be allowed to go unchecked, and going unchecked is exactly what this administration is demanding.
Even if you are naive enough to believe that the people in this administration are people of good will who have the best interests of the American people in mind, they are laying the groundwork for future governments to exercise abuses of power that most Americans refuse to believe could ever happen to them. It could, and it will if it's not nipped in the bud.
Do you see the point? If someone breaks the taboo, he is guilty until proven justified. That's the way we have to think about torture and other repugnant acts of state-mandated violence. The extraordinary case does not justify an argument that if it's ok in one situation, there is a general category of situations in which torture is morally or legally acceptable. This is what the Cheney/Bush torture advocates are trying to argue. Torture is a morally abominable act even when its victims are morally abominable human beings. The horror and ugliness of the act should never be minimized, and the full weight of public opinion should always be against its use. Because once you make the argument that it is justifiable in some situations, then the limits which at first might seem reasonable are easily pushed, and we find ourselves walking on the dark side.
The Cheney/Bush legacy of torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib is repugnant, and there is no moral justification for it. This administration is walking on the dark side, and all its self-justifying casuistry about torture and surveillance in the name of national security cannot cover up how fundamentally disgusting it is, how deeply complicit in the corruptions of power it has become. These people are odious and their actions and their justifications for them must be repudiated. It's not yet too late, but soon it could be.