Nobody could have anticipated that this Administration would engage in the most extreme evisceration of our moral values in American history, through its policies of torture abroad and illegality at home. Because of this radicalism, politicians who want to appear "moderate" are now forced to compromise their basic moral values in order to "run to the center." Hillary Clinton's recent statements in support of torture makes her the latest example, while Christopher Shays' ongoing moral implosion proves that the phrase "moderate Republican" is now an oxymoron.
Sen. Clinton was given a simple test by the Editorial Board of the New York Daily News - and she flunked. She had taken a clear stand against the use of torture during the recent Senatorial debate, which was a refreshing change from her practice of equivocation on critical issues.
"Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach?" said the Senator. Then she did exactly that, by falling for the same rhetorical trap that has confused and captured so many others. Asked about the fictional "ticking time bomb scenario," she said (according to the News' Ben Smith) " ... there is a place for what she called 'severity,' in a conversation that included mentioning waterboarding, hypothermia, and other techniques commonly described as torture."
She added, "I have said that those are very rare but if they occur there has to be some lawful authority for pursuing that ... there has to be some check and balance, some reporting ... in those instances where we have sufficient basis to believe there is something imminent."
The "ticking time bomb scenario" is entirely fictional. It presupposes that we know there is a bomb, we know the individual to be tortured can locate it, and that he'll give us accurate information when we torture him (this last point is critical, and we'll return to it.)
The "time bomb scenario" is the torture advocate's equivalent of George Bernard Shaw's offensive joke about women and prostitution. That's the one where he offers a woman $1 million if she'll have sex with him. When she says yes, he then offers a dollar. She responds, "Do you think I'm a whore?" and he answers, "We've established that; now we're just negotiating the price."
Advocates for torture use this scenario the same way Shaw used $1 million. Once you've said "yes" to this scenario - whether you're John McCain, or an American citizen to whom it sounds reasonable - you're now a torturer. The rest is just a matter of degree - or, if you prefer, a "negotiation."
Stop and think about it. If you know the torture will work, anything is permissible under this scenario. Why not murder the terrorist's wife, or his children? You'll save a lot of other, more innocent women and children if you do. Why not bomb his village, his ethnic region ... his country? Where do you stop?
And once you've decided it's alright to torture a known terrorist, then why not a "probable" terrorist? Or a possible terrorist? You're torturing the innocent in no time - as we've done repeatedly in Iraq. The New York Times investigation of the "black room" torture chamber we created there included this description of how we treated those we tortured and later deemed innocent: "Prisoners deemed no threat to American troops were often driven deep into the Iraqi desert at night and released, sometimes given $100 or more in American money for their trouble."
Here's what Sen. Clinton should have said: Your scenario is fictional. Even if it were true, intelligence experts agree that information obtained through torture is usually bad. We would be more likely to spend the last few seconds before the bomb exploded looking in the wrong place. And once we torture, we become the people the terrorists want us to become, because it's good for their recruitment. Look at Iraq. That's what we've done there, and it's a failure. Lastly, and most important, if we lose sight of our ethics and values we become a nation in moral decline. We must never let that happen.
But she didn't say that. Why? Because she wants to be President, and she wants to run as a "moderate." And right now, there's no quicker way to becoming morally compromised than to position yourself as a moderate.
Take Chris Shays. The Connecticut representative has been the model of moderate Republicanism for many years - sound, balanced, genteel, and decent. He was one of Washington's best examples of the moderate breed. But there's no room for moderation in today's Republican world, so he's been forced to adapt.
Watching him as he defends torture and other barbaric practices has been a painful process for anyone who has worked on bipartisan projects with both Democrats and Republicans - as I have. First, he "decided to embrace war as an issue" with his fellow Republicans. Then, he dismissed the horrors of Abu Ghraib as a mere "sex ring" rather than torture. Now he's engaging in gutter rhetoric to defend Denny Hastert.
I admired Chris Shays once, but his pursuit of some mythical vision of moderation has left him morally bankrupt. Some periods of history demand that you answer the call of the old folk song: "Which side are you on?" Equivocation on issues of basic morality leads only to a fall. When it comes to Chris Shays, he's been left negotiating the price of his soul.