Torture: Do You Say Use It, or Lose It?

05/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Now that previously secret Bush administration memos have been made public, we all know that terrorism suspects were repeatedly brutalized during interrogations. Former Vice-President Cheney is on the record saying the harsh treatment was justified (although he still won't call it torture). So here's what I want to know: how many people in this country are on the same page with him? Time for an up or down vote. I should contact the folks at American Idol right now and they can tally all the responses by phone.

But before we open the lines, I would ask everyone who agrees with Dick
Cheney to answer one question. If it's true that the CIA interrogations
saved lives and kept this country safer, why not expand their use? Are
lives threatened by potential terror attacks more important than lives
threatened by street gangs or bank robbers?

Defenders of torture often cite the possibility of a lone Al-Qaeda agent
who has hidden an atomic bomb in a city and the only way to avert nuclear
disaster is by forcing him to talk before the clock strikes midnight.

If we're going hypothetical on this issue, I can come up with something
much less far-fetched. A loser with a long criminal record is caught on a
security camera abducting a child. A police dragnet captures the miscreant
but the child isn't with him, and he refuses to say anything when
questioned. Oh, and I forgot to mention the child has a rare condition that
requires special medicine every day.

So, is it okay to waterboard the suspect? Dick Cheney says it's an
effective method for getting information. If that's true, why shouldn't we
use it to save a child, or any crime victim in deadly danger?

Suppose the police didn't catch the suspect. Suppose they learned that
he was hiding at his mother's house, but when they got there he was gone,
and the mom denies knowing anything. Should the cops give her the water
treatment to find out if she's lying?

If torture is justified because it saves lives and keeps society safer,
there's no way to justify restricting it. And once it becomes part of "the
tool box" for keeping us all safe, it will spread and corrupt every agency
that employs it. Don't take my word for it. Hop on a search engine and
find a column entitled "Torture's Long Shadow" by Vladimir Bukovsky that
appeared in the December 18, 2005 edition of the Washington Post.

The patriots who founded this nation had good reasons for adding the
Bill of Rights to the Constitution. They wanted to create a society that
protects each individual equally and makes everyone accountable through the
rule of law. What is alarming to me these days is how many Americans seem
to think the Bill of Rights went overboard and gives too many advantages to
law breakers.

This attitude isn't new. Throughout our history, various groups have
found ways to make an end run around the justice system. Their reasoning
often goes like this: "We're in a situation that needs immediate action,
our targets are worthless thugs, and the justice system is too slow.
Decent people will be better off when the bad guys get their punishment, and
who cares if they didn't get a trial? We all know they're guilty."

You can find an excellent example of this vigilante thinking in Big
, by J. Anthony Lukas. It's the tale of a union leader who was
accused of plotting the 1905 murder of a former Idaho governor. The book is
packed with anecdotes about real life in the old west, and on page 192
readers will find a brief description of a gunman named Tom Horn.

For a short period in 1899 he was, by some accounts, employed by
cattlemen in Wyoming as a one-man assassination squad to hunt down and
eliminate suspected rustlers. Horn's career ended in 1903 when he was
convicted of murder and hanged. I think his story should be required
reading in all high school history classes. It's a vivid example of what happens
when people in positions of power decide the Bill of Rights is too
idealistic for the real world, and some threats can only be handled by
working "from the dark side."