The newest defense of the fact that Americans tortured prisoners in their custody appears to be that the torture “worked.” This argument, in conjunction with the ticking time bomb scenario, is now the new front on the propaganda war against domestic prosecution of war crimes committed by members of the Bush administration and those under its command.

Let me begin with this: I feel a deep and profound sadness that the question of whether we, as Americans, should torture (given the right set of circumstances) is even the subject a debate in this country. It should not be. The torture apologists (and there are oh so many) want desperately to make this debate about who the terrorists are, when the debate is absolutely, incontrovertibly and fundamentally about an entirely different question.

Who are we?

As a people, with a government nominally by the people and for the people, the decisions we make, the debates we have, define who we are as a Nation. As a growing consensus begins to accept the reality that waterboarding is torture, the argument is slowly being shifted – an effort currently spearheaded by Dick Cheney — to whether the torture was “justified.” This argument demeans us as a people, and suggests that there is no moral barrier to any act that advances our interests.

Arguing the “effectiveness” of torture is a classic example of the “slippery slope.” Lawyers generally become familiar with this term in law school, and it applies to arguments that essentially prove too much. That is to say if the argument is accepted as valid, it would justify or permit a whole host of other things that would otherwise be considered utterly unacceptable. If the question of whether we should use a particular technique turns on whether the technique works — that the ends justify the means — then the specifics of waterboarding no longer matter, because any technique that “works” is permissible.

Assume then, for purposes of this argument, that the following highly dubious assertions on which that argument necessarily relies are true:

1. The detainees subjected to torture in fact had knowledge of a “ticking time bomb” – an assertion frequently made but never substantiated.

2. Assume further that the detainees were in fact being tortured to obtain this information, rather than the far more likely scenario that they were being tortured to falsely substantiate a non-existent link between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein.

3. Assume further that if subjected to technique X, the detainee will reveal the “ticking time bomb” information.

4. Assume that if the ticking time bomb goes off, several thousand Americans will die – never mind there has never been any substantiation of this claim either.

If the technique x works, then we should do it. What if technique X is raping the detainee’s child while the chained detainee watches, then rigging a system such that the detainee is forced to stand for hours on end, and any time his strength fails and he sits down, a machine slices off a piece of his child while he watches, after which U.S. soldiers come back in and finish dismembering and otherwise defiling the child while the detainee watches? What if only one of his children isn’t enough? Let’s do the same with every other member of the detainee’s family. As long as his family numbers less than the thousands of Americans that would be killed by the ticking time bomb, then we are saving more people by doing it and we should just do it, right? Everyone comfortable with that?

If you believe that this example is too extreme, and that the argument made by the administration would not permit such conduct, consider the following exchange with the execrable John Yoo at a December 1, 2005 Conference in an exchange with an International Human Rights Expert:

Doug Cassel: If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?

John Yoo: No treaty.

Doug Cassel: Also no law by Congress — that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo…

John Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

This thought occurred to me as I was listening to Lindsey Graham posing a question during yesterday’s hearing on torture. I am paraphrasing, but he began a question with “Would it be torture if …”, and then went on to describe the subject of waterboarding as a terrorist and a horrible person with information about an imminent attack. This is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order.

What possible bearing could the identity of the victim of torture have on the question on whether a particular act or technique is torture? It is torture or it is not – the identity of the subject of the technique has no relevance to the question of whether the technique itself is torture. By arguing that the torture was effective, what we are saying is that there is no level, no act, no behavior that we would not stoop to to protect our own.

Is that who we are? Is that what we have become?