Torture is back in the news, thanks in large part to President Barack Obama’s recent speech attacking the national security policies of the Bush Administration (despite reserving for himself the right to authorize torture) and ex-Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech setting the record straight.
Every political speech describing what the American government may do to foreign captives should be viewed as a speech on what the speaker would allow foreign governments to do to Americans.
Of course, nobody is talking about what the government can do to “foreign captives” or “foreign nationals.” We’re talking about what it can do to “terrorists,” meaning “foreign nationals whose goal is to kill civilians.” Advocacy of torturing foreign terrorists cannot be interpreted as moral permission for another country to torture any Americans aside from those engaged in terrorist activities against that country. And frankly, if a foreign government finds itself in that situation, I certainly wouldn’t object to their torturing an American-born terrorist to obtain information necessary to save lives.
As for the scenario of unjust governments or terrorist groups torturing captive US soldiers or civilians, then pointing to American waterboarding as justification, it’s preposterous. If our enemies’ actions were only, or even primarily, motivated by a desire to retaliate for comparable grievances, 9/11 never would have happened. Neither would the USS Cole bombing, the Khobar Towers, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing…you get the point.
Personally, I’ll take saving innocent lives over trying to psychoanalyze what might lead monsters to violate senses of moral restraint they don’t even have.