12/23/2014 03:31 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Torture and the Arc of History

"Military necessity does not admit of cruelty..."

-- Abraham Lincoln
General Order 100, Article 16
April 24, 1863

As usual, Lincoln captures the heart of the matter in a few words. In the midst of the gravest threat to our national existence -- "military necessity" of the highest order -- his general order to the Union Army established the clear bounds of conduct toward captured enemy combatants and informs us today as we wrestle with similar issues of national security and human dignity.

Here is the full text--

Military necessity does not admit of cruelty, that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor for maiming or wounding except in fight, nor torture to extort confessions.

The national debate that has raged since the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" has bounced around various issues, including the process that produced the report, the CIA's candor in connection with the program, how the program was managed, whether the report was a partisan exercise, how much it cost, who was interviewed, and whether it should have been released at all.

But while this is the stuff of debate on cable news and the occasional speech on the Senate floor, none of these issues go to the fundamental question -- whether torture should be a part of our national security toolkit under any circumstances. And it's the "any circumstances" part which makes this so hard. The second basic question, inextricably tied to the first, is whether torture works -- is it an effective tool for extracting otherwise unavailable information which may save thousands or even millions of lives.

This is what some supporters of the techniques refer to as the ticking time bomb scenario -- the good guy (let's call him Jack Bauer) has before him the bad guy who has the code to defuse the bomb which will incinerate an American city. Millions of lives are at stake, there is no time to spare, the terrorist has no remorse and is refusing to cooperate. Very few people faced with this precise situation would tell Jack Bauer that the human rights of the terrorist trump the lives of millions of innocents. But the problem with the scenario is that it never happens so clearly in real life and the result of answering yes to the theoretical question inevitably leads to the slipperiest of slopes toward real-life brutality and dishonor.

And this is exactly what happened in this case.

Although there are arguments to be made about the process which produced the Senate report, the totality of the picture it paints with stark clarity is of a quick descent from something close to the ticking time bomb (the possibility of a second attack after 9/11) to waterboarding (183 times in one case), forced rectal feeding, and death from hypothermia after being chained naked to a concrete floor -- all with little or no new intelligence gained, plots foiled, or bad guys captured.

This latter conclusion is at the heart of the report -- the torture didn't work. After reviewing in excruciating detail the 20 cases used repeatedly by the CIA's leadership to justify the program, the report makes a very powerful case that the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (as John McCain pointed out recently, an Orwellian phrase if ever there was one) were not effective in producing new and reliable information. And this squares with the consensus of professional interrogators -- that conventional approaches to interrogation, like those employed regularly by our intelligence, military, and law enforcement officials, produce more information and (importantly) more reliable information than torture without undermining our moral authority, serving as a recruitment poster for our enemies, or staining our national character.

Interestingly, the CIA position on the "did it work" question -- after being confronted with the data in the report -- has migrated from the certainty of 10 years ago to today's position that the answer to this question is "unknowable." This is a huge concession by those in a good position to know and drastically undermines the case for torture that the architects of this program are still maintaining and that entertainment like 24 and Zero Dark Thirty have drummed into all of us.

The arc of human history is from brutality to civilization, although this progression is neither steady nor unbroken; man's inhumanity to man has always been and will continue to be part of the human condition. But an important inflection point on that arc was the radical notion at the core of the founding of this country, that "All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights..." We set out to be different, to break with a past where cruelty was routine, humanity was disposable, and an enemy's barbarity justified a response in kind.

We may not live this creed every day; surely we have fallen short. But to deliberately betray it, especially for gains which are "unknowable," is a betrayal of our very identity as a nation. In the last analysis, what makes us exceptional in history's arc is that we acknowledge our failings -- as we have in this case -- and move on, true to ourselves and to the revolutionary vision of our founders.