Behind the political debate over the actual torture memos and instances is the generic question of situational ethics versus absolute moral codes. I come down on the side of absolute moral codes because I do not believe in the unique situation.
Some things must be unthinkable; once the unthinkable becomes merely the unusual, then it becomes an ever more attractive option. It becomes the destruction of all morals by the salami method- slice by slice. You don't think so? Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that torture would be effective and the information gathered thereby accurate, even though history questions this. Now let's examine the classic ticking bomb scenario- NY is about to be bombed, and you have one of the terrorist gang in your custody- do you torture him for the location of the bomb?
If you said yes, let me reset the scenario for you. Suppose that your captive is not a member of the cell that is actually doing the bombing, but is a member of the organization, and knows the names and contact information of the perpetrators- do you torture him? Logically, if you said "yes" before, you should agree here, too- if not, can you give any logical reason why not?
If you said yes, then answer me this: suppose your captive was not himself a terrorist, but knows who the terrorists are and how to find them- a brother perhaps, whatever? After all, both Christian and Islamic moral codes- as well as all other religions I'm aware of- teach that if you know of a criminal plot and do nothing, you are guilty of the same crime- "One who eats meat cannot sneer at the butcher". In many countries, he would be legally guilty as well- accessory before the fact. Do you torture him? If you said yes to both of the above, I don't see how you can say no now- the principle is the same.
Now let us suppose the captive is a real hard case- you've waterboarded him a hundred times, and he hasn't talked. Time is running out, and 14 million lives are at stake. Do you move on to more traditional means, hot coals and nutcrackers? Is he more important than 14 million Americans? Isn't the principle the same as it was before? Before you answer, let me offer you an alternative- would you waterboard his child in front of him to break him? After all, everyone keeps telling me that waterboarding leaves no lasting physical effects, the kid is in no physical danger. What do you do- give up, put him on the rack, or waterboard his child?
Now suppose your chain of information was wrong at any point- congratulations Mr. macho Jack Bauer, you've just tortured the innocent child of an innocent man.
There are other slippery slopes than the one above, once you have established the principle of "greater good". Suppose it weren't 14 million New Yorkers. Suppose it was a real life version of the movie "Black Sunday", an attack on the Super Bowl. Would you torture him to save 100,000 people? Suppose it were an office building- do you torture for 1,000 people? Suppose it were a nightclub- do 200 victims justify torture? Knowing that we will torture when necessary, how many police will feel justified "merely slapping some guy around a little bit" when he feels it's necessary? After all, it's not like it's "real torture". Or maybe using his Taser to torture instead of to subdue, because "it leaves no lasting effects"? I mean, I wouldn't ordinarily do it, but this case is so important...
At this point, whenever I'm arguing "situational ethics" with someone, I'm always asked, "What if it were your wife at stake?" I am going to answer, but before I do, let me point out that this question is not a valid question for the discussion, because societal ethics and personal ethics are entirely different things. for example, it's moral for a society to tax its members, but it's not moral for me to shove a gun in my neighbor's face and demand money. My answer: I don't know for sure; nobody knows how they would behave in an emergency unless they've experienced it. But I do know this: if I succumbed to temptation and tortured the perp, I would NOT claim that I had done the right thing. PG had it exactly right in her comments on The Chaliceblog" ; I would expect to be arrested and prosecuted for it, and I would plead guilty. I would be guilty, both of the law and of my personal understanding of right and wrong. It has been said that we will have justice when those who were not injured feel as outraged as those who were; I would add that we can get there if those who are injured can retain their morals and ethics.