- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

Sometimes even a senator makes sense, which is good when all about him other senators are making silly, adopting a feel-good prohibition on the interrogation technique called “waterboarding.”

Fifty-one senators concluded that waterboarding — restraining a prisoner and giving him the sensation of drowning — constitutes torture, and adopted legislation to forbid it. America is a better country than that.

That was the argument, and it sounds good, particularly to people with no responsibility for protecting themselves or anyone else. But George W. Bush is not one of those people, and yesterday the White House said the president would veto the legislation, adopted earlier by the House of Representatives.

That sounds good, too. Protecting the nation against remorseless criminals who have demonstrated they have the will and the way to inflict grievous harm on the nation is the ultimate responsibility of the president of the United States. This applies, at the moment, to George W. Bush. After next Jan. 20, it will apply to someone else, and when it does, that someone else, even if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, will have the responsibility, and we must hope the president understands that responsibility. Our lives depend on it.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a Democrat, warned George W. yesterday to keep his pen in his pocket. If he vetoes the legislation, he said, “he will be voting in favor of waterboarding.” But Mr. Schumer has not always been on the silly side of the aisle.

“We ought to be reasonable about this,” he said at a Senate hearing in 2004. “I think there are probably few people in this room or in America who would say that torture should never be used, particularly if thousands of lives are at stake. … It’s easy to sit back in an armchair and say that torture can never be used, but when you are in the foxhole, it is a very different deal. And I respect the fact that the president is in the foxhole every day.”

But this is common sense that gets limited currency in the present moment, when the pols are jockeying for partisan advantage, and besides, a lot of them are counting on the hope, if not the actual belief, that there’s no further threat of a reprise of September 11. Their strategy to prevent catastrophe is to “believe in a place called hope.”

The man from Hope doesn’t believe in torture, except maybe sometimes. “You pick up someone you know is the No. 2 aide to Osama bin Laden,” Bill Clinton remarked not long ago, “and you know they have an operation planned for the United States or some European capital in the next three days. And you know this guy knows it. … And you think you can only get it out of this guy by shooting him full of some drugs or waterboarding him or otherwise working him over.” He thinks Congress should enact a narrow law permitting the president to “take personal responsibility for torture in extreme cases.” Even John McCain, who knows about torture and is equally loud declaiming against it, concedes that as president he, too, would authorize it in a “one in a million” situation.

But the Democrats in the Senate would tolerate no such wiggle room for a president named Bush. If Hillary or Barack Obama gets to the White House, you can be sure that Chuck Schumer will put aside silly and embrace sanity again. Opposing torture, particularly waterboarding, is for now a partisan club intended to torture only George W. Bush.

No decent man or woman approves of inflicting gratuitous pain, but everyone, like John McCain, would authorize torture in the right circumstances. The argument is over where to draw the line; why tell terrorists where the line is drawn? And who wouldn’t authorize drilling into a kneecap, ordering a root canal without Novocaine, waterboarding (or even forcing a suspect to listen to the reading of an editorial in the New York Times) if that were the only way to extract the information to save his child.

George W. Bush, the torturemeister in Democratic dreams, has authorized waterboarding only three times, and only then to extract the information that prevented a reprise of September 11. Senator Schumer was right: “We ought to be reasonable about this.”

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.


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