Tim Russert blindsided Hillary Clinton last night, positing “a situation in which we were holding the “number three man in Al Qaeda. We know there's a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation? Don't we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.”
When Sen. Clinton answered that “torture cannot be American policy period” and “in addition to the values that are so important for our country to exhibit is that there is very little evidence that it works,” Russert told her that the scenario was suggested by Bill Clinton last year.
“Well, he's not standing here right now,” she responded to applause.
As other Democrats more or less agreed, a whiff of sanctimony was in the air, as it always is when politicians talk about the subject.
Only a fool (pace Alberto Gonzales) would advocate torture as policy, but as with so many other issues, it’s not always that simple. One of the less obvious sad results of Bush’s black/white, good/evil view of the world is that it has infected those who oppose him.
Before answering Russert’s “scenario,” Hillary Clinton had observed that “these hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it's dangerous to go down this path.”
It certainly is. In an era when presidents talk publicly about their underwear, voters expect definite answers about everything. But important issues don’t lend themselves to sound-bite solutions.
Just as there is the yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater exception to free speech, there may be situations that override the prohibition against torture or, as Joe Biden suggested, offering pardons to terrorists in exchange for information that would prevent devastation.
Years ago, when he had a TV show, William F. Buckley asked a noted attorney who strongly advocated defendants’ rights what he would do to get information from a suspect who knew where a kidnapped child was buried with a limited supply of air.
The lawyer did not hesitate: “Beat it out of him.”
In failing to acknowledge that there are no doctrinaire answers to everything a la George Bush, Democrats who want to replace him are doing themselves, and us, no service. Republicans will be only too happy to characterize them as lily-livered liberals.