My husband Dan is one of those guys who is prone to shouting at the newspaper. The front page story in the Post today entitled "Mukasy Losing Democrats' Backing" had him going this morning. "That's the problem with having a freaking conscience!" he yelled. "You end up having to say that some of your friends are wrong!"
He was reacting to this sentence: "Mukasey also said he is reluctant to offer opinions on interrogation techniques because he does not want to place U.S. officials 'in personal legal jeopardy'...." But if what they are doing is not only morally repugnant, but illegal according to the U.S. constitution, then they are already in "personal legal jeopardy", aren't they? And if they aren't, then they should be.
The previous paragraph exposed another problem with having some kind of moral backbone: "Mukasey said that techniques described as waterboarding by lawmakers "seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me, and would probably seem the same to many Americans." But, he continued, "hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical."
To say that there is such a thing as a basic "human right", or to say that there is some kind of moral basis for our behavior, wherever that might come from, is to say that we are willing to make some kind of judgment about what is right and wrong in abstraction from the particulars of a situation or the particular person engaged in that behavior. And while I do believe that much of our life together requires a kind of moral nuance that is often missing from public debate, I also believe in a bottom line. And I believe that waterboarding is way, way below that bottom line.
This past Sunday's "Speaking of Faith" program featured a number of speakers talking about Reinhold Niebuhr and his on-going impact on conversation today regarding ethical behavior in the public sphere. Paul Elie, the author of an article on Niebuhr in this month's The Atlantic, made this comment on the show:
I think there's a yearning in our culture for people whose basic commitments are prior to politics, who have a frame of reference that's larger than politics, which isn't to say simply that they don't, favor one party or the other, but that they have a vocabulary, a frame of reference that helps to explain their political commitments instead of the political commitments coming first.
I know I'm yearning for that. But Mukasy doesn't seem to have it.