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The madness of George

Opinion: What this week's torture memos say about "Justice."

Anti-torture demonstrators simulate waterboarding outside the Justice Departement in Washington November 5, 2007. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

NEW YORK — It's all out there now, in all its vivid madness. America's democracy, on "Justice Department" stationery, impaling us on the horns of our own sanctimony. Paragraph after paragraph of banal, mediocre legal prose, the work of the department's "Office of Legal Counsel" attorneys, who are now back in private practice (or on a federal bench).

Do they look back at these memos, to their years in government, as the "good old days," when they fought the good fight, defining the outer limits of decency and human endurance? Did any of them ever get the equivalent of the "heck of a job, Brownie" for their troubles? You have to wonder.

The memos released by the White House this week depict a system so lost in paranoia that the larger implications of using America's "beacon of freedom" to sear out the eyes of our enemies barely got a thought.

I lost family and friends in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was on the first civilian airliner to leave JFK when the skies opened back up, bound to cover the war brewing in Afghanistan. I have no qualms whatsoever with the idea of hunting Osama bin Laden to the ends of the earth. Shoot to kill is just fine with me.

But I also know the difference between war and terror, and it takes no legal training whatsoever to see that terror is the intention here:

"Although the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death, prolonged mental harm must nonetheless result to violate the statutory prohibition on infliction of severe mental pain or suffering ... you have advised us that the relief is almost immediate when the cloth is removed from the nose and mouth. In the absence of prolonged mental harm, no severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted, and the use of these procedures would not constitute torture."

Wouldn't want to produce "mental harm" while walking someone to the brink of "imminent death," now would we?

The urgency of getting answers from people who might genuinely have had information about a "second 9/11" has been the excuse offered up by former Bush administration officials for torturing people, though they have never been that honest about it.

Over the years since these practices first came to light, people with experience as interrogators — or as interrogation subjects — have made the point that such tactics produce unreliable information.

As Sen. John McCain bravely pointed out when the torturer-in-chief was still in command, such tactics ultimately cost more in terms of national prestige and honor than the information itself can possibly be worth. In the larger, more important battle of ideas raging around the planet, it's a formula for defeat.

The debate until this week has swirled around bits and pieces of the shadow policy put in place by President George W. Bush and his advisers after Sept. 11, 2001, an incomplete picture that tempted some to see these excesses as the understandable mistakes of men under pressure.

But these memos confirm something different, a mistake of at least the scale of the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II — a travesty perpetrated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 and rightfully denounced and apologized for by Ronald Reagan in 1988.

The subjects in these memos, of course, were scum — subhuman, even. Perhaps somewhere deep in the archive that term was used in a first draft, then struck by an editor with a greater appreciation for historical irony. No matter, though, plenty of evidence survived to prove the case that Justice, under George W. Bush, was not just blind. It went mad, too.

Reading these memos genuinely changed my perception of the "Justice Department." Even given what we know about the workings of the J. Edgar Hoover era there, or the debasement of the department during the Nixon era, "Justice" had still seemed to me just another fairly benign euphemism of the kind peppered all over Washington and any government center. "Defense" Department, for instance, isn't as honest as the old "War Department" it replaced, but in the spirit of human progress, you can at least admire the effort.