06/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Willing Torturers

Over the past few years, as we have been debating torture and its place in America's intelligence policy, the words of Abraham Lincoln keep rolling through my mind:

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery," Lincoln said in 1865, "I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

I just replace "slavery" with "torture."

Echoing Lincoln, I confess a strong impulse to see waterboarding tried out personally on a few people arguing for it. For me, the urge to give torture's advocates a taste of their own medicine is a fleeting, shameful notion. But history says the question of "How far would I go?" has been all too real. And the answer is frightening.

In his landmark book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen argued that the grotesque atrocities of the Holocaust could not have been accomplished without the broad and even enthusiastic support of millions of average citizens who made the deaths of millions of others possible.

Goldhagen wrote,

"The German perpetrators of the Holocaust treated Jews in all the brutal and lethal ways that they did because, by and large, they believed that what they were doing was right and necessary."

"Right and Necessary." The very argument put forward for torturing terrorist suspects. Which of us would stop at the unthinkable if we were told that what we were doing was "right and necessary?" Especially if we are led to believe it works!

It's tempting to think that we would emerge as the exception to the rule if put to the test at Abu Ghraib prison or the Hotel Rwanda or next door to Anne Frank's family. I myself would like to think that I could be the good apple in the bad barrel.

Yet the work of such scholars as Philip Zimbardo does not bear out my naïve hope. Zimbardo is the creator of the now-notorious Stanford Prison Experiment in which students rapidly devolved into brutal guards in a mock prison scenario. Placed in a situation of uneven distribution of power, most of those in control impose their will to do harm. In a recent book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo wrote:

"Dehumanization is like a cortical cataract that clouds one's thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human. It makes some people come to see those others as enemies deserving of torment, torture and annihilation."

Zimbardo's work offers proof of how few of us can resist and actually rebel. His work is borne out by what we know of My Lai, Abu Ghraib, genocide in Africa, or any of the other all-too-frequent examples of people descending into voluntary barbarism. Vain self-flattery tells us that we would follow the lead of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela or any of the other models of resistance. Those who did attempt to resist, such as Sophie Scholl -- the young German student who tried to stand up to the Nazis -- or Hugh Thompson -- the helicopter pilot who stood in the way of the killing at My Lai -- are the rare exceptions to the rule -few and far between.

Still, we stand justified in asking our leaders to hold America to a higher standard -- to probe the decisions and decision-makers who led us to that darkened cell with its waterboards and bug boxes. But as we examine our leaders, each of us must hold ourselves to account as well. And as we do, recall it was also Lincoln who said,

"I hate slavery because it deprives the republican example of its just influence in the world -enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity."

Again, simply substitute "torture" for Lincoln's "slavery."

Neither has a place in a civilized America.

shorter version of this blog aired as a Commentary on Vermont Public Radio on Friday May 1.