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Davis: On the torture debate

05/01/09 7:55AM By Kenneth Davis
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(HOST) As he listens to the debate about torture and its place in America's intelligence policy, commentator Ken Davis is reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln.

(DAVIS) "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery," Lincoln said in 1865, "I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

I just replace "slavery" with "torture."

Echoing Lincoln, I confess a strong impulse to see waterboarding tried out personally on a few people arguing for it. For me, the urge to give torture's advocates a taste of their own medicine is a fleeting, shameful notion. But history says the question of "how far would I go?" has been all too real. And the answer is frightening.

In Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen argued that the atrocities of the Holocaust could not have been accomplished without the broad support of millions of average citizens who made the deaths of millions of others possible. Goldhagen wrote, "The German perpetrators of the Holocaust treated Jews in all the brutal and lethal ways that they did because, by and large, they believed that what they were doing was right and necessary."      

It's tempting to think that each of us, if put to the test, would know and do better. Yet the work of such scholars as Philip Zimbardo doesn't bear out that naïve hope. Zimbardo devised the now-notorious Stanford Prison Experiment in which students rapidly devolved into brutal guards in a mock prison scenario.

Zimbardo's work proves how few of us can resist and actually rebel. The Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings and Mandelas are few and far between.

Still, we stand justified in asking our leaders to hold America to a higher standard - to probe those who led us to that darkened cell with its waterboards and bug boxes.

But as we examine our leaders, each of us must hold ourselves to account as well. And as we do, recall it was also Lincoln who said, "I hate slavery because it deprives the republican example of its just influence in the world... enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites... causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity."

Again, simply substitute "torture" for Lincoln's "slavery." Neither has a place in a civilized America.

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