IT WASN’T AN edifying spectacle: a group of middle-aged white guys competing with one another to see who could do the best impersonation of Jack Bauer, torture enthusiast and the central character on Fox’s hit show “24.”
In Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary debate, Fox News moderator Brit Hume -- who appears to have been watching too much “24" himself -- raised what he described as “a fictional but we think plausible scenario involving terrorism and the response to it.” He then laid out the kind of “ticking-bomb” scenario on which virtually every episode of “24" is premised -- precisely the kind that most intelligence experts consider fictional and entirely implausible.
Imagine, Hume told the candidates, that hundreds of Americans have been killed in three major suicide bombings and “a fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured ... and taken to Guantanamo.... U.S. intelligence believes that another, larger attack is planned.... How aggressively would you interrogate” the captured suspects?
Rudy Giuliani -- a man who knows he has a few cross-dressing episodes to live down -- didn’t hesitate. “I would tell the [interrogators] to use every method.... It shouldn’t be torture, but every method they can think of.”
“Water-boarding?” asked Hume.
“I would -- and I would -- well, I’d say every method they could think of,” affirmed Giuliani.
As governor of the State That Dares Not Speak Its Name -- at least not in GOP circles -- Mitt Romney naturally had to up the ante. “You said the person’s going to be in Guantanamo. I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo.... Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.” I am politician, hear me roar! And, oh yeah: “Enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used.”
Not to be left out, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California boasted that, “in terms of getting information that would save American lives, even if it involves very high-pressure techniques,” he would offer only “one sentence: Get the information.”
And finally, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo: “We’re wondering about whether water-boarding would be a -- a bad thing to do? I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you.”
Ha ha. This remark was greeted by uproarious laughter and applause from the audience because, after all, who doesn’t enjoy thinking about a hunky guy threatening to gouge out a detainee’s eye with a hunting knife?
Unlike Hunter and Tancredo, Giuliani and Romney took pains to insist that they didn’t favor torture, just ... you know, “enhanced interrogation.” But water-boarding, which neither would disavow, is unquestionably a form of torture. It involves taking a bound, gagged and blindfolded prisoner and pouring water over him or holding him underwater to induce an unbearable sensation of drowning. It was used in the Spanish Inquisition and by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge -- fellas who make Jack Bauer look like a softie.
In Tuesday’s debate, only John McCain and Ron Paul bucked the collective swooning over enhanced interrogation. Paul mused about the way that torture has become “enhanced interrogation technique. It sounds like newspeak,” he noted, referring to George Orwell’s term for totalitarian doubletalk in his novel “1984.” Paul obviously never got the memo. For most of the Republican primary candidates, “1984" isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s a how-to manual.
Only McCain reminded the audience that “it’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are.”
McCain’s chest-beating Republican rivals would do well to listen to him, and to read the letter Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, sent May 10 to all U.S. troops there: “Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information.... They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary.... What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight ... is how we behave. In everything we do, we must ... treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect.”
In Tuesday’s debate, Tancredo brushed off “theoretical” objections to torture as a luxury we can’t afford: If “we go under, Western civilization goes under.” And what’s a little torture when Western civilization itself is at stake?
But Western civilization isn’t about speaking English, or flags, or football or borders. If Western civilization is about anything at all, it’s about the arduous, centuries-long struggle to nurture an idea of human dignity that’s not dependent on nationality or power. As Petraeus put it, there are some “values and standards that make us who we are.”
Tancredo’s right about one thing though. If we embrace the use of torture, we won’t need to worry that extremist Islamic terrorists might destroy Western civilization.
We’ll have killed it off ourselves.