WASHINGTON -- Treatment of the torture issue during the second Republican presidential debate illustrates what's great and what can go terribly wrong with these presidential face-offs.
Fox News' Brit Hume spelled out a hypothetical scenario worthy of Fox TV's Jack Bauer thriller, 24.
His plot involved suicide bombers simultaneously attacking shopping malls, captured suspects being taken to the military's detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and U.S. intelligence agents believing that there are plans for an even larger attack. "How aggressively would you interrogate" the hypothetical captured suspects? Mr. Hume asked.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said he would tell the interrogators to "use every method."
"It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of," he said. Including "water-boarding"? Mr. Hume asked. Yes, answered Mr. Giuliani.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said that to get "information that would save American lives, even if it involves very high-pressure techniques," he would tell the defense secretary only one sentence: "Get the information."
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo: "We're wondering about whether water-boarding would be a bad thing to do? I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you."
That thrilled the crowd. Mr. Bauer is a fictional counterterrorist played by Kiefer Sutherland on 24. He is known to employ such tools as fire, rope, electric drills and sharp objects to hasten his interrogations.
Not to be outdone, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney endorsed "enhanced interrogation techniques" and sparked enthusiastic applause with: "Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo? My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo."
The only person on that stage who was a tortured prisoner of war threw cold water on the Bauer option.
"It's not about the terrorists, it's about us," he said. "It's about what kind of country we are."
No applause. That's what Arizona Sen. John McCain gets for shedding light and not just heat on the question.
Here's a real-life scenario that the presidential candidates should hear about: Last November, Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind 24.
Accompanied by three military and FBI interrogators, he described how the show was undermining the academy's classroom lessons with the false message that torture is a jim-dandy idea in the real world.
As Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker in February, the meeting discussed how the show's ticking-time-bomb scenario makes a thrilling hour on TV but is virtually unknown in real life.
And it would be a big help, the dean told the Hollywood folks, if 24 at least would sometimes show how torture produces false information and actually damages counterterrorism efforts.
Entertainment Weekly reported that the show's top producer, Joel Surnow, has decided to shy away from torture, not because it is an immoral or impractical technique but because it has been overused as a device in his show.
As for Guantanamo, researchers at the Seton Hall University School of Law went to the trouble last year of reading 517 Guantanamo case files that the Pentagon had released. They found that only 8 percent of the detainees were characterized as al-Qaida fighters, and only 5 percent fit President Bush's description of being "picked up on the battlefield" - or anywhere else - by U.S. troops.
Instead, 86 percent were handed over to us by Pakistan or the Afghan Northern Alliance for reasons that are not always clear.
The uncomfortable truth is that our side has gotten some suspects right but made big mistakes about others in the fog of war. We don't know how many of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo have evidence against them, but there's a way to find out. It's called habeas corpus, the fundamental right of individuals to be protected against arbitrary detention without a trial.
Do our presidential candidates still believe in it? All of them need to be asked that question.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.