While the economy dominates the headlines, the most contentious issue of the Obama presidency so far has been the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror. It is a sharply polarized debate. To Barack Obama's supporters, the President's orders to close the Guantanamo detention camp and end coercive interrogations which may violate the prohibitions on torture is as a Lincolnesque act of liberation that has lifted the clouds of darkness from America. To his detractors, these decisions are reckless acts by (in one commentator's words) "the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office," sacrificing national security to fan-pleasing demagoguery. Yet the reality of both Bush administration policies and Obama's first steps is more complicated than either left or right will admit.
There is no doubt that the long-term detention and often inhumane treatment of detainees under the Bush administration did a great deal of damage both to America's international standing and to the political culture inside this country. It's rare to see a defense of these policies that doesn't lapse into repulsiveness, either minimizing the cruelty of "coercive interrogation" techniques or reveling in their brutality.
Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly sneers that human rights activists would prohibit any treatment that makes detainees "uncomfortable" – as if we were talking about a long flight in a crowded economy-class section, not being left shackled and naked on an ice-cold stone floor. Often, the advocates of these tactics blatantly contradict themselves, arguing in the same breath that the techniques used on detainees involve no more than minor unpleasantness ("having a little water poured on your face") and that these techniques are essential to our security because they are the way to force hardened terror-network operatives to spill the beans.
Semantic hair-splitting aside, waterboarding is torture. It has been widely recognized as such for a long time—specifically, by the United States when committed by oppressive foreign regimes. It is also difficult to argue in good faith that exposure to extreme cold and heat or being chained in a painfully contorted position are not torture or its moral equivalent. When you couple the use of these interrogation techniques with the risk of wrongful detention, the prospects of innocents being brutalized in our name are rather frightening.
Even when done with the intent of obtaining information that could save innocent lives, torture is degrading not only to the victim but to the torturer – particularly since, in an effort such as the War on Terror, there is always the danger that the pain being inflicted on terrorists for practical purposes will also be seen as just retribution. This moral degradation is evident in the fact that a number of right-wing websites carry ads that feature sexy young women sporting T-shirts with the words, "I'd rather be waterboarding."
Yet the other side is guilty of its own evasions and exaggerations that muddy the discussion. When psychological techniques such as wrapping a Muslim detainee in an Israeli flag or making him believe he has been smeared with menstrual blood – making him "unclean" according to the precepts of his religious—are equated with torture, this lends credibility to arguments that the term is being used too frivolously. (Such techniques may be ill-advised for other reasons, such as fostering the perception among moderate Muslims that the war on terror is a war against Islam; but that is a separate issue from torture.)
Another common argument is that torture is not only immoral but ineffective: the suspect will tell the inquisitor anything to stop the pain, and even if the made-up confessions contain nuggets of truthful information, they cannot be sorted from the falsehoods. This may be true in most cases. But, while defenders of torture are too fond of television and movie-type scenarios in which an evildoer is tortured to stop the proverbial ticking time bomb, the sweeping assertion that such techniques can never be effective seems self-serving. It is a way to avoid hard choices – such as the conscious choice not to cross a certain line even if crossing that line is the surest way to obtain essential life-saving information. It is also an imprudent argument which can be easily discredited if there are real-life facts that contradict it.
So far, Obama's decisions demonstrate a nuanced approach. He has ordered the closure of Guantanamo – which has great symbolic value because of the camp's association with human rights abuses – but only after ways have been found to either transfer the prisoners to other places of detention or ensure that those wrongly held can be freed safely. While banning torture and directing the military to comply with the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual in handling captured terror suspects, he has also ordered an interagency task force to review other interrogation methods that may be necessary to protect national security. While Obama's reported top pick for CIA director, agency veteran John Brennan, withdrew from consideration last November after critics of Bush-era anti-terror policies accused him of supporting unacceptable interrogation techniques, Obama has brought Brennan back as his top counterterrorism advisor.
The Bush administration waged its war on terror in the conviction that it was battling absolute evil. Today, the same conviction drives the crusaders against Bush-era excesses, and it, too, can lead us down a dangerous path. Obama's statement in his inaugural speech that "we reject the false choice between our safety and our ideals" was a noble sentiment. Yet there is a certain arrogance in the assertion that we can balance safety and idealism with no difficult compromises – and it seems that, in practice, Obama is well aware of the need for such compromises.
In the same speech, Obama recommended "the tempering qualities of humility and restraint." These qualities are often sorely lacking in the torture debate.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.com.