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

How do we Debate the Unthinkable?

I may be jaded, but I was incapable of mustering the liberal rage many seem to experience in the face of the "torture memos" President Obama recently released. Instead, I feel the unnerving sense of experiencing the surreal, like unintentionally walking onto the set of a Tim Burton movie. The documents are not the work of the Lord of Darkness (or Dick Cheney). Rather, they read as any other legal document would; obtuse, unnecessarily complex, and -- dare I say -- boring. I can almost imagine John Yoo et al sitting around, diligently deliberating, just as they would if they were estate lawyers filing changes to a will. It is the banality, rather than the extremity, of the memos that is their most distinctive feature. Unlike Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" in Nazi Germany, however, this was not a case of ordinary people doing unspeakable things. This was a case of our nation's elites turning the unspeakable into the ordinary. Our responsibility now is to ensure it never becomes ordinary, even as a subject of condemnation.

Despite the extraordinary nature of the circumstances -- torture is far from uncommon, but a public debate about its use is unprecedented -- the discourse in the American public is rather conventional. Does it count as torture, or is it just enhanced interrogation? Was it effective or not? Should Congress have been briefed? Who should we prosecute, if anyone? These are all valid questions, and I have nothing of value to add to this discussion. What I will add is that these are the same questions -- with different nouns and verbs -- that are being asked of everything done by the Bush Administration, from No Child Left Behind to Iraq. By debating torture as we would education policy, we are accepting it as a valid point for discussion and opening it up to the staid left vs. right dichotomy Arianna Huffington recently criticized. I may be alone, but something about this does not feel right.

The debate prompted me to look up an incredible op-ed piece by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, which ran in the New York Times in 2007. Indeed, many of my current opinions on the torture debate were inspired by this article. In it, he argues against torture being "normalized," while admitting there may be times when he would be hard-pressed to resist using it. The problem, though, is when it is "[elevated]...into a universal principle" for which standards can be developed. As he says, the television show "24" frequently portrays torture, but still presents it as a "disturbing and desperate choice."

Obama was right to end the interrogation techniques of Bush; they were both immoral and ineffective. Ali Soufan, one of the top FBI agents handling the al-Qaeda case, recently said so in an enlightening op-ed. But this is not the time for a witch hunt of Bush Administration officials, to determine who is responsible and bears the blame. It is especially not the time for prosecution of the individuals who conducted the interrogations; these men and women were defending a nation paralyzed by fear after 9/11, and doing what they were assured was right. This was not the banality of evil, but rather, again, the Bush Administration's attempts to make torture a part of national security. Those responsible for upholding that security -- that is, our military and civilian defense services -- bear no more blame than the public clamoring for protection.

Like most of Zizek's work, his conclusions are ambiguous. Perhaps this is appropriate. I cannot support a legalistic ban on torture; even if it is evil, one cannot ban evil, merely hope to keep it at bay. I also cannot support it; whatever the crimes of the terrorists, the same faith that George W. Bush so often appealed to militates against casually treating humans as means to an end. Prosecutions and investigations will serve only to polarize the country, politicize the issue, and -- even worse -- make the universally rejected term "torture" as commonplace a subject of policy disputes as health care reform.

As the world's greatest power, America will undoubtedly find itself in crises in which -- for a few, desperate moments -- the unthinkable will be considered in an attempt to preserve the nation. Our job is not to pretend those moments never occur, or that we would be of higher moral caliber if we were placed in them. Our responsibility is to ensure they remain few, and desperate.