06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Torture Debate Will Be Won or Lost on National Security, not Morality or Legality

Whenever I want to figure out whether a politician is worth supporting, I take a look at the "issues" section of his website. Different candidates are bound to care about different issues, so no two lists are exactly alike. I wouldn't expect a Senator from Mississippi to have a page devoted to LGBT issues, just as I wouldn't expect a Congressman from an urban district in California to put farm subsidies front and center on the website. Yet to the list of standard issues that all politicians must take a stand on, I fear we may have to add a new one - torture.

Social Security, Honoring the Troops, Immigration...Torture. The combination of 9/11 and the Bush administration's penchant for legal and moral sophistry has turned torture into a household discussion. We all have that one uncle who can't help but turn Thanksgiving dinner into a political shouting match, and this year all those crazy uncles have "enhanced interrogations" as a new ax to grind. (We would do well to put of that conversation until after the Turkey has been carved).

Like so many other legitimate political issues, the debate about torture is breaking down along partisan lines. The Republican Party is taking up the pro-torture side of the debate. They aren't saying so explicitly - although Rep. Pete Hoekstra did coin the disturbing phrase "American torture program" last week - but Dick Cheney, Lindsay Graham and others are making the case that "enhanced interrogations" are a-okay because they keep America safe. It's Sadism for Security.

Democrats need to tackle this claim head on. Torture undermines our national security and makes us far less safe. There's a long line of military and intelligence professionals who have condemned torture as ineffective and counterproductive, so those of us who oppose torture have a strong leg to stand on. However, these arguments have been made ad nauseum, and I've already made this case myself in an op-ed and a white paper, so I'm not going to repeat them here.

Instead, I want to focus on the politics of the issue. Torture is both immoral and illegal, and it's well and good for us to point that out. But if our goal is to maintain a lasting ban on torture, then we're going to have to do better. Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, the Washington Post/ABC, and the New York Times/CBS reveal that the American people are split right down the middle on the question of torture. Those who believe that torture can sometimes be justified aren't making moral or legal arguments. They're making national security arguments. "Torture may be evil," so the thinking goes, "but if refusing to torture a terrorist will lead to the deaths of innocent people, then torture is a lesser evil that must be tolerated."

This view is factually incorrect, but it doesn't change the fact that millions of Americans believe it out of a sincere desire to keep America safe. This means that we need to go on the offense and argue very clearly that torture undermines our security and makes us less safe. We also have to show that we're not demonizing Americans who mistakenly believe that torture works. Their hearts are in the right place, and since we all wish to keep America strong and safe, there's no reason why we can't carry on the discussion at that level.

We don't have to leave morals or laws on the sideline, but unless we're satisfied with preaching to the choir, national security needs to be the focus of our case against torture. Maybe that will get our crazy uncle to sit down and shut up this year.

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