Few subjects I have written about in this column in 2007 provoked such an outpouring of response as the one last week about the waterboarding of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah.
In a nutshell, I argued that torture in all its forms should be banned, but that in some instances, as with the waterboarding of Zubaydah, it is defensible. The trial and punishment of those who break the law is always subject to the discretion of prosecutors, juries and judges. In rare cases, such as Zubaydah's, in which a coercive method is employed to prevent a greater wrong, the interrogators involved should not be prosecuted.
Many readers found this outrageous. I received the usual cascade of comment from the Sandbox School of Argument, the name-callers and those whose idea of persuasion is to state their own opinion loudly - lots of capital letters, bold type and underlinings. Several responders belong to the Ostrich School; they won't be reading this because they have forsworn reading anything I ever again write, presumably on the assumption that if you ignore opinions you don't like, they go away.
There is no question that something important is lost when we as a nation accede to tactics considered reprehensible. One correspondent asked: "What is the harm done to the citizens of the country whose agents have a policy that allows torture?" This correspondent argued that we ought to accept impending tragedy in the name of honoring a high-minded policy.
In my column, I raised the example of the German police chief who threatened a captured kidnapper with torture because he refused to reveal where he had buried alive his 12-year-old victim. The kidnapper promptly gave the location. The German police chief lost his job for making the threat.
It may well have been more noble on some level for him not to have made the threat, but I prefer a less rigid concept of morality. I would not have fired the police chief, or prosecuted him. I agree completely with his actions, even though torture is repulsive. The boy's life matters more than my rectitude or peace of mind.