THE BLOG
10/07/2007 11:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Worse Than "Mission Accomplished"

Not since "Mission Accomplished" had President Bush made such an iconic blunder.

When the president insisted to the world on Friday that "this government does not torture people," the gap between the rhetoric and reality of his words was so bitterly obvious that it instantly became the natural compliment to his seminal pronouncement on Iraq.

Yet the parallels, unfortunately, end there. For the sad reality is that the burlesque nature of Bush's "torture" declaration was in another sense utterly unprecedented, even for him.

To see what I mean, we need to start not with what Bush's declaration denies, but what it admits. Watch the video, and you'll see that the dour adamance with which Bush insists his administration "does not torture" betrays him here: it communicates a clear awareness that torture is, in itself, a moral wrong.

That Bush would make such an admission is utterly extraordinary. I cannot think of another instance in which he has implied, however tacitly, that the execution of presidential power could be immoral on its face. Unilateral military action, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention -- in each case Bush has admitted that those policies could be taken too far. But he's never suggested that they might be unethical in themselves; any time he's challenged on that point, he either dodges the question or exhibits a stark disregard for the moral assumptions of his critics.

Yet even Bush understands that torture is different. Where he has little qualms initiating war or spying on his own citizens, there's something about torture that gives him pause.

What is it?

Presumably, it's that he too can recognize how radically torture undermines the core premise of democracy. In a democratic society, after all, the most fundamental belief is that the human will is sacrosanct -- that each individual has the right to will as they please, if not to act on it.

Yet torture explicitly disavows that sanctity: it violates the human body precisely so that it might control the human will.

That is why no democratic official can endorse torture as a state policy. To take away the absolute sanctity of the human will is to take away democracy's very reason for being -- without it, there's no way to distinguish the moral legitimacy of democracy from that of any other government.

Once again, the good news here is that Bush is aware of this: he wouldn't deny that his administration endorsed torture if he weren't.

The bad news, though, is that Bush doesn't seem to understand that the moral logic of torture exists independently of what we call it. The practice of waterboarding, for instance, inflicts extreme duress on a subject with the express purpose of altering their will. Regardless of whether we define waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation technique" or "torture," it thus violates the democratic belief in the absolute sovereignty of the human will.

The fact that Bush could admit to such practices, even as he claimed that "this government does not torture," is why his appearance on Friday will undoubtedly remain as his most shamefully iconic moment.

At the very point at which he hoped to reassure the world of his moral authority, he instead demonstrated a profound disregard for the moral foundation that makes democracy great.