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Are we still on that long moral arc to justice?

I was holding forth for an audience the other day on how we need to eschew moral absolutes and move toward an acknowledgment of moral ambiguity and moral ambivalence.

The world would be a safer place, less given to the rigid insularity of culture and thus to war, I explained.

I was mostly talking about the Pakistanis and how we need not like them or trust them or approve of them in the course of serving our interests by keeping them as mutually beneficial diplomatic allies.

I was inclined to believe the article in the Guardian that said the Pakistanis had a deal with us all along: They were not going to catch Osama bin Laden, owing to internal complications, but, if we nabbed him in their country without their knowledge, they would only pretend to be mad about it.

For borrowed eloquence, I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said that the moral arc of history is long, but ever-bending toward justice.

In other words: Amid our failings and compromises and accommodations, our fudging of strict righteousness, humankind becomes better slowly.

That was when a man brought up so-called torture and whether we should be morally absolute in its rejection.

He asked us to consider this scenario: A group of us, all innocent people, found ourselves surrounding a man who had a dirty bomb strapped to his person that could only be deactivated by punching a pass code that only the strapped bomber knew. What, to try to save ourselves but more importantly to try to save our children and loved ones, would we be willing to do to that man to try to extract that code from him?

Oh, that’s different, a simple matter of direct self-defense, a woman chimed in.

Yes, but if you hold in custody a man known to be intimate with terrorist planners who are committed to killing countless of your innocent countrymen, and if you therefore reasonably suspect he has information that could save those lives, are not the moral calculations pretty much the same?

Inevitably, someone invoked the Germans under Hitler and the unspeakable atrocities against Jews. The Germans had a moral obligation not to go along, didn’t they? Don’t we?

Yes, of course, they did. But, as always, we all too readily invoke the Holocaust in what amounts to an outrageously offensive and trivial comparison.

While indeed an inhumane horror, making the occasional terrorism suspect think he is drowning so that you might glean information in the interest of national security is not remotely the same as systematically exterminating an entire people for hatred of them.

Those quotes the other day from an unidentified CIA official were interesting. He said waterboarding was done this way: A prime suspect was waterboarded and asked questions to which the interrogator already knew the answer. The point was to determine if the suspect possessed valid information and would be truthful about it under duress. The idea was to determine his value later when asked real questions and placed under the merely implied threat of having to endure again that horrifying sense of drowning.

So what did I say to the man about moral absolutes and so-called torture?

I told him that, while it would be easy to declare that I reject torture in any and all cases, I didn’t actually know. I copped out.

These people who argue against torture by saying it doesn’t ever work to produce credible information — are they saying they would go along if it was demonstrated to be effective? How convenient for them that they avoid having to address the issue morally.

Maybe the best we can hope is that our anguish about all of this at least is part of what Dr. King called that bend toward justice of civilization’s long moral arc.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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