America's tortured soul stands on trial

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2007, 12:00am

There are times when, from a moral standpoint, men and women simply should not remain silent. In such times, seemingly fine lines need to be turned into unequivocal hard lines. This is when the men and women of conscience stand out.

Consider the controversy about torture that is bedevilling America. It may be hard to believe, but only one serious presidential candidate has so far been outspoken about the need for the US never to use torture.

At a time when potential leaders ought to be standing up, by and large they are falling all over themselves in an attempt to avoid taking firm policy lines that might alienate potential primary voters.

But moral waffling is not the style, on the vital question of torture, for Senator John McCain. And he should know: he spent time in a Vietnamese prison, where he was severely mistreated and other American soldiers were tortured.

He recently said: 'These tools are not American tools, and the easy way is not the American way.'

It is the difficult moral dilemmas in life that give definition to our character and soul. All the candidates favour a high-quality health care system. No one is happy about the rich-poor divide. No candidate, as far as I know, offers anything other than a contemptuous view of Islamic terrorism. Those are the easy questions. But should the US way of interrogation permit the torture of a suspect who may have valuable, even explosive, information?

Two major ways of approaching this question are perhaps most incisive. One approach uses cost-benefit analysis: would the quality and quantity of information obtained by torture justify the barbarity of the technique? The problem with this philosophical approach is that sometimes, if not often, the information is not useful or may be erroneous.

The second classic approach is more principled. It does not try to add up the gains and losses of using torture, but would absolutely ban certain classic torture techniques as unambiguous no-go areas for US interrogators.

But don't desperate times call for desperate measures? The answer is that desperate times test true moral fibre in ways that ordinary times can't even approach.

In 1981, I wrote a book with Andrea Darvi, now my wife, titled Secret Police: The Inside Story of a Network of Terror. Its conclusion was that America is different from bad nations only when it stays on the morally right side. 'A secret police force is a horribly blunt and effective instrument of suffering,' we wrote. 'This book is intended as a warning.'

Today, more than a quarter of a century later, at least one candidate for the White House takes a similar view. It is no wonder that both the Des Moines Register and The Boston Globe - major newspapers stalking the Des Moines and New Hampshire primary tests - recently endorsed Senator McCain. No one needs to agree with him on every issue. But at least he stands for something - and it is something very important: America's national soul.

Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of Confessions of an American Media Man