07/05/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Our country is spinning out of control -- morally, that is. Hitting the skids. Going down the tubes. Going to hell. Rotting. I can't find the right language. But it's bad, folks. Really bad. These are dark times. I'm not exaggerating for the sake of a blog.

Yesterday, John Yoo and David Addington, the nation's architects for torture, were given several chances, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee, to condemn the very idea of torturing the children of detainees as a way of extracting information.

In several public fora heretofore, Yoo has insisted that no law -- neither domestic nor international -- prevents the president from authorizing the crushing of a child's testicles or the raping of an infant as a way of exerting pressure upon a terrorist suspect.

On December 1, 2005, Yoo notoriously contended in a public debate that the legality of crushing a child's testicles "depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that." Yesterday John Conyers tried to ask Yoo point-blank about that claim in that 2005 debate, namely whether Yoo still believes "that the President can order that a suspect's child be tortured in gruesome fashion."

Yoo's hemming and hawing around the question -- and his inability or refusal to say simply no, no, no -- spoke volumes. Addington evaded the question by telling committee members to consult their own in-house lawyers about such "legal opinions" and then refused to talk further about torture because "al Qaeda may watch C-SPAN."

Yoo and Addington could have answered the question forthrightly and then clarified that they were presenting extremely narrow legal reasoning and then quickly qualified that they personally and professionally considered child-torture a moral abomination, beyond the pale of any hypothetical national security scenario. But they did not.

Which leads us to wonder: To what horrific practices, exactly, did their legal-clearance give the green light? How far were they willing to go to encourage and to protect CIA field-operatives? What "enhanced interrogation practices" did they expressly forbid when the Bush administration authorized extraordinary (look-the-other-way) rendition to secret prisons in rogue countries?

What were the moral limits, if any, to their national security calculations? When they met dozens of times in the White House from 2002-2003 to discuss acceptable torture methods, did Cheney, Ashcroft, Powell, Rumsfeld, Tenet, and Rice take child-torture (or the threat thereof) off the table? It's a simple yes or no question: Did the United States of America permit (or fail to proscribe) child-torture in any way?

Philosophy professors, in introductory ethics classes, easily dispense with utilitarian logic as a stand-alone means of assessing the propriety of social practice. Sure, strapping infant babies to front car bumpers would drastically reduce the number of overall automobile fatalities, but we as a people just wouldn't subject infant babies to that risk and to that indignity, even if the expected benefits far outweighed the costs.

Torture advocates justify their cruel position through a perverse utilitarian calculus: If there is (i.e., might be) a ticking time bomb, extracting information through violent measures is acceptable because it prevents the possible destruction of many more lives. Yet if you start to think that way, the logic is slippery, escalating, and limitless: If it is okay to torture a detainee, then what's the big deal with torturing his child, if it achieves the same national security end? Why stop at one child? Why not level an entire village? And so on.

René Girard has called this violently spiraling kind of thinking "mimetic rivalry." It becomes a vicious race to the bottom with your enemy. In attempting to prevent a calamity, in matching wits with your despicable opponent, you suspend or abandon certain restraining principles, and in the process, you yourself become a moral monster. But at that point you can't simply blame the enemy for what you've become.

David Addington may be right that al Qaeda watches him on C-SPAN. What he fails to realize is that they are gleefully laughing at him. And us.