When is torture OK?

A couple of days ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a searing report describing the interrogation practices utilized by the CIA following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Every news blog has at least one listicle describing the most horrible revelations contained in the report. The talking heads on TV are doing the same, and with good reason; our appalling treatment of detainees cuts deeply across the grain of who we believe we are.

There is much less fervor about the cause of the problem. In the months following 9/11, the people of the United States were scared. We collectively knew very little about al Qaeda, and into that vacuum we inserted our worst fears. What if they had a nuclear weapon in a suitcase? What if there were dozens of sleeper cells already within our borders? What if this was just the beginning?

On September 14, the Authorization for use of Military Force passed both the House and the Senate. Combining the votes of both chambers, there were 518 Ayes, 1 Nay, and 12 members not voting. President Bush believed, as did Congress and the vast majority of the American people, that the attacks of September 11 “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.

Way back in 2009, as President Obama was just beginning his term of office, George Friedman wrote an excellent analysis of these policies.

And this raises the moral question. The United States is a moral project: its Declaration of Independence and Constitution state that. The president takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. The Constitution does not speak to the question of torture of non-citizens, but it implies an abhorrence of rights violations (at least for citizens). But the Declaration of Independence contains the phrase, “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” This indicates that world opinion matters.

Protecting the principles of the declaration and the Constitution are meaningless without regime preservation and defending the nation.

Mr. Friedman’s concluding question is the topic we should really be discussing:

When a president takes an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” what are the limits on his obligation?