During a secret briefing two years ago on waterboarding and other interrogation techniques employed by the U.S. government, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood on her chair and waved her fists in the air, screaming at the top of her lungs, "Pour it on! Hurt those rats! Hurt them real bad!"
You doubt it, right? But surely you know The Washington Post has reported that the briefing did take place with Pelosi and several others on hand, that no one raised objections to waterboarding then and that some unidentified souls even wondered if the government was going far enough.
And surely you know that wild, crazy exaggeration has become the accepted mode of political discussion in this country today.
Pelosi herself engaged in incredible, indefensible overstatement — actually misstatement — when she recently said of Republicans that they "like this war [in Iraq]. They want this war to continue." But unhinged as they were, her words seem little more than blown kisses compared with the hallucinatory images evoked by some on the issue of whether Americans are torturing terrorism suspects.
Listen in for long, and you come away with the notion of hundreds of helpless innocents being subjected to excruciating, prolonged pain. You would hardly know that much of the dispute centers around such practices as playing music really loudly or that waterboarding has not been condoned for more than two years, was never apparently afflicted on more than a relatively few people and has been used by the U.S. military on our own officers by way of preparing them for what they could face in enemy hands.
Talk such factual talk, as at least some journalists, politicians and others have, and you may quickly be called conscienceless. We seem to be forbidden — as a matter of moral worthiness — to wonder along with one writer whether defining torture too broadly could make the word virtually meaningless, depriving it of its power to disgust us, or whether waterboarding in all its possible manifestations is a terrible cruelty. Maybe it is, but even then can’t we still ask whether there are any circumstances whatsoever when it might be excusable? Hillary Clinton thinks there are.
The Democratic presidential candidate has said that if a president ever knew of an "imminent threat to millions of Americans," he or she might want to ignore the international standards that should otherwise be operative. But if millions, why not hundreds of thousands, or a thousand or maybe just a small bunch of kids? It now seems likely that the U.S. waterboarding of al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed helped produce information saving a great many lives. Were those lives worth the few moments of awful fright he may have experienced? Was the waterboarding disproportionate to the outright extinction of other human beings?
My point is not that the critics of waterboarding should shut up and go away. But we simultaneously can at least hope that any debate be carried out in the context of what is actually going on, and not hysterically and hyperbolically, as if we are witnessing the rebirth of the Third Reich.
Decades ago, I was a reporter in Albany, N.Y., working for a newspaper at the foot of a hill that could be ascended only with huffing, puffing, knee endangerment and sweat unless you employed a trick.