"I would find myself trussed up and left for hours in ropes, my biceps bound tightly with several loops to cut off my circulation and the end of the rope cinched behind my back, pulling my shoulders and elbows unnaturally close together. It was incredibly painful." — Sen. John McCain from his book, "Faith of My Fathers"
"[John McCain] doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works." — former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum
For the record, John McCain was learning "how enhanced interrogation works" when Rick Santorum was still trying to find a good acne cream.
Yes, the Arizona senator, once famed for a maverick integrity, has evidenced a disheartening flexibility of principle in recent years. He has reversed himself on offshore drilling, gays in the military, and even on the question of whether he really is a maverick.
But in one conviction, Mr. McCain, a former Navy flier held for more than five years as a prisoner in North Vietnam, has remained steadfast: Torture is wrong. He came to this conclusion through a regimen of beatings, degradations and humiliations.
Mr. Santorum's bizarre comment, made last week in a radio interview, was in response to a recent McCain speech in which he disputed the claim by dead-enders of the last administration that so-called "enhanced interrogation" (i.e., torture) authorized by President George W. Bush led to the information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Mr. McCain also took them on in a column for The Washington Post.
"I know from personal experience," he wrote, "that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading."
Contrary to what has become an article of faith for some, said Mr. McCain, torture seems to have played no role in the finding of bin Laden.
But what if it had? Would that end justify this means? Or does framing the debate in terms of efficacy not miss the point entirely?
Even Mr. McCain concedes torture "sometimes produces good intelligence," but the question is whether that intelligence is worth the price we pay for it. Absent the "ticking bomb" scenario so often evoked by torture enthusiasts (and has anyone ever seen that scenario outside an episode of "24"?) it is hard to see how it could be.
The price, after all, is our national character, our good name, our reputation and reality as a nation of laws. The price is to become like Cuba, like Syria, like North Korea, like Iran, a nation of hoods and shackles and dungeons and disappearances. The price is to surrender any last remaining illusion that we are better than that.
Some, eager to have hands shiny with the blood of enemies, will consider it a bargain even at those prices. Expedience is their watchword. Let us torture to stop the ticking bomb. Let us torture to find the madman. Let us torture just to see what information we get.
But the struggle we wage is not simply a physical one, not simply a battle to save lives. No, this is a struggle between competing ways of seeing the world, a struggle of rival ideals. Some will say the stakes are too high for us to worry about venerating ideals.
Actually, they are too high not to.
Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly. His email is email@example.com.