05/16/2007 10:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clap If You Love Torture

They clapped for torture. I'm not saying that Tuesday's GOP debate was the Coliseum, with the crowd rising to its feet in a lusty rage. But when given the choice between Giuliani's support of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and McCain's clearly reasoned, fully experienced belief that torture is not as useful as armchair-generals think, they clapped for Giuliani.

Late in the debate, FOX moderators painted a scene straight out of 24: suicide-bombers hit three malls, hundreds are dead, and the fourth attack is averted when alleged co-conspirators are captured and sent to Gitmo. Brit Hume asked McCain how aggressively he'd interrogate the prisoners.

Sen. McCain called the scenario "million-to-one," but said that if were to happen, he would take that responsibility. Then he launched into a reasoned and personal explanation of why torture doesn't work. He explained what every American must know, if they don't know already: torture doesn't yield accurate information; the more pain you inflict, the more the victims tell you what they think you want to hear. He went on to say that "it's not about the terrorists, it's...about what kind of country we are."

No claps. No nothing.

He finished by saying that the Army Field Manual techniques work in 999,999 of cases, and that "if we agree to torture people, we will do ourselves great harm in the world."

Again, no applause. One hopes this played better with primary voters watching at home.

Hume turned to Giuliani. He quoted Bush CIA directors saying that "enhanced interrogation techniques, to include, presumably, water-boarding" have been "the most valuable intelligence tool." Would he employ them?

Giuliani said he'd instruct interrogators to "use every method they could think of -- it shouldn't be torture -- but every method they could think of." Hume interrupted, asked of water-boarding. Giuliani repeated: "I'd say every method they could think of, and I would support them in doing that because I've seen what --

The audience interrupted Giuliani with sustained applause. Maybe some were affirming him for having lived through 9/11. But watching it, the claps felt like they were for his willingness to do anything necessary. Even if the necessary was as ghastly as water-boarding. I wondered how many of them really knew what waterboarding was. I can't even write about it without feeling ill. Click here for definition.

Watching this, I felt I witnessed a powerful moment of communication. It was as if the debate audience was instructing the candidates to listen well, because this was the kind of answer they were looking for. Giuliani got the nod, even though "every method you can think of" is an unfortunate answer in my book -- or a clearly telegraphed one. I hear it and skip past "America's Mayor" to "Giuliani time" and wonder if every method includes rape by toilet plunger.

Later, McCain spoke of the Detainee Treatment Act, that there was a "sharp division between those who had served in the military and those who hadn't." He continued: "Virtually every senior officer, retired or active-duty, starting with Colin Powell, General Vessey and everyone else, agreed with my position that we should not torture people."

No applause. Again.

Which leads me to ask, if you know that torture is not the best way to extract crucial information, why exactly, do you support it?

It's Not Reason, Stupid. It's Emotion.

Something drove those handclappers. Something that had nothing to do with fact-finding. Something that had everything to do with expressing primal emotion. The kind that Republicans are historically good at channeling -- at least long enough to get their candidates elected.

We can say, oh, these were hardcore Republicans in South Carolina and write it off. But is that smart? Or even correct?

Clearly, they want a man of power. Power that is not afraid to punish. Power that does not worry about rules other people write.

Those audience members ached for something that McCain was not giving. At least not when he presented them with the facts about torture, or appealed to their better angels of what America should mean in idea and practice. His facts did not scratch their itch.

I think Dems get in trouble when we overlook how much primal emotion drives actions in the voting booth. We chart cognitive dissonance and wonder how voters could be so "stupid" or "unthinking." Many of us, especially those who are highly cerebral, laugh off voters who claim they care about how candidates make them feel. There is something wrong with the word "feel," as if we're only talking about a blanket wrapped around our shoulders, forgetting that the blanket means protection. We insist on the primacy of reason, as if the best and only way to judge a candidate is by the words of his policies and proposals, or by a reasoned analysis of votes and quotes.

Of course these are proper and smart ways to judge a candidate. But you must also have a read of the man or woman themselves. Just because you know the votes doesn't mean you know the character. And when things go very, very wrong in our country, you need to have a sense of how this leader will react.

I will be the first to say that how a candidate makes me feel determines my support. For me, it comes down to these questions: when the S hits the fan, is this candidate going to have my back? If I am affected by a disaster, can I count on this candidate to care whether I live or die? Will the leader treat injustice as a moral tragedy that hurts us all? I don't think the government should provide for my every need. I don't want a "mommy" state. I just want to know that when things go down, there are systems in place ready to respond, staffed by knowledgeable people, lead by brave and goodhearted leaders.

I look at those South Carolina Republicans, and maybe they want some of the same things. They too, I presume, want to feel protected. They think that inflicting pain and punishment without regard to justice is the way to do this. If they were smart, they'd spend some time listening to Ron Paul. I'm not saying that everything he says is right or perfect. But he is right to point out that there are consequences to our actions at home and abroad and that netherworld known as Gitmo.

Blowback isn't just some mountain in Wyoming.