10/02/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Why Is the Romney Team Pushing for Torture?

What gives when the Republican candidate's campaign team gets to work formulating a pro-torture policy a few weeks before the election? It's no surprise that support for torture is strong among Republicans. But it's new and especially bad -- as Dorothy Parker once said, not just terrible but terrible with raisins in it -- when they support it for no special reason, addressing no particular dire event or emergency, but just, you know, because. The reason they give -- to save American lives -- and the real reason are two different things.

The question comes up because a story in The New York Times by Charlie Savage reports that Mitt Romney's advisors wrote a memo that "privately urged him to 'rescind and replace President Obama's executive order'" limiting interrogation techniques to those in the Army Field Manual (widely regarded as both effective and civilized) and to permit "enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives." It's unlikely that Romney will need much persuading. He long ago made it clear that he didn't regard waterboarding as torture. (See this CNN story, from November 11, 2011.)

This will be good news to many Americans, who approve of torture in large numbers. Polls show that somewhere from around half to 60 percent of Americans think there are times--either often, sometimes, or rarely -- when it's the right thing to do. (See reports here and here, and this article.) Evangelical Christians are especially pro-torture. A Pew poll in 2009 found that white evangelical protestants approved of it more than other religious groups -- 62 percent thinking it justified sometimes or often. It also found that the more people go to church, the more they approve of it. The unaffiliated and those who attend mainline churches disapproved most strongly.

The result is that when Bush defiantly crossed clear moral and legal lines to torture prisoners, a lot of voters had his back. He still thinks it was right. Cheney still thinks it was right. Supreme Court Justice Scalia defended torture on BBC radio in 2008. But put aside for a moment the false idea that torture makes more of us safe. And also put aside denials that United States laws and international conventions to which the United States is signatory clearly forbid torture and other abuses. And let's for a moment set aside, too, those corrupt claims by the Bush administration that their "enhanced interrogations" were anything but torture. It's important to think straight about all that, but Republicans aren't for torture because they believe those falsehoods. They believe those falsehoods because they are for torture.

The Romney team have torture on their minds for the same reason that torture was important to the Bush administration, and the real reason the Bush people resorted to torture was not to save lives, but to establish a principle: They were insisting on their right to ignore moral and legal restraints. Torture was not a means to an end. It was the end. Cruelty to detainees was a way to overcome their chronic sense of humiliation and impotence, in the short run on account of the 9/11 attacks but in the long run on account of their long history of political defeat and cultural assaults on their egos, their sense of power and importance. Torturing made them feel superior, strong, and manly.

Their "saving lives" justification of torture was a pseudo-moral justification of actions that had no genuine moral motive. These men did not begin with a horror of torture that they felt morally obliged to overcome. Guilt, obligation, and compassion were not detectable in their actions, in their words, or even in their body language. They acted from other motives, which could (and can) easily be read in their bravado, their defiant swagger and language, and even in the cavalier way they resorted to a kind of mock legal reasoning in those famously crooked torture memoranda. And think about the fact that the men who wrote those memos, Jay Bybee and John Yoo, are now, respectively, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Torture was their rebellion against the power of people with a kind of conscience that they did not share; it was an assertion of their dominance over that kind of thinking. They found their pseudo-justifications of torture among the arguments against "idealism" that political realists, most notably Henry Kissinger, had formulated back in the 1950s. The Bush administration repeatedly turned to Kissinger for an infusion of some of that cold war amoralism, which, to them, felt good -- powerful, tough, and mean. Ideals were nice, but also soft and silly, maybe a little effeminate, and they had no place in international politics. The only way American ideals could survive, Kissinger had argued, was if the nation survived. And our nation could not survive if it behaved morally. You had to fight evil with its own weapons. (Note how right-wing politics applied that thinking not only to foreign enemies but also to their political enemies here at home. Liberals were so evil that the right had to sacrifice morality to defeat them; any tactics, no matter how illegal, dishonest, or cruel, were justified.)

People with a functioning conscience always reject this kind of "realist" argument. To them, the ideals that the so-called realists and technocrats want to sacrifice are what make the nation strong, and, most important of all, worth fighting and dying for.

The United States used to be full of people willing to fight and die to save others from the sort of regimes that would torture. Now Republican presidential campaigns get behind the idea that we should be one of those regimes. But the Romney camp isn't writing memos about torture because they're worrying about endangered lives. No, for them it's the principle of the thing, and it's a vile principle.

Note: This post includes some points from my book, The Good Life, and quotes a couple of sentences from it.