We can understand President Obama’s first impulse to “move forward” and not prosecute “those who devised policy” (as Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, put it) on interrogation techniques that amounted to torture.

It must have seemed an expedient and even beneficial position – a way to avoid embroiling Congress and, in fact, the entire nation in an excruciating, painful soul-search. But it was wrong, just as torture is wrong – unequivocally, morally wrong – and we are glad that the president is considering putting the question to a bipartisan committee.

Of course, some will say, “It depends what you mean by torture.” As a Supreme Court justice said during an obscenity trial, “I know it when I see it.”

Water-boarding, for instance – in which water is poured onto someone who can’t move or see and is unable to breathe, who then experiences the sensation of drowning.

“What’s a little water-boarding,” some may ask, “if it gets us information that will save precious American lives?”

Even “a little water-boarding” is morally repulsive, and we are beginning to learn that it was anything but “little.” According to a 2005 Justice Department legal memorandum, as quoted in Monday’s New York Times, “[W]ater-boarding was used 183 times against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” Another prisoner was water-boarded 83 times.

What was magical about those huge numbers? What was gained by near-drowning someone 183 times? Would not 182 times have done as well?

Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, said in a statement on Tuesday, “We do not need these techniques to keep America safe. The information gained from these techniques is valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us, and they are not essential to our national security.”

In 2006, we noted in this space that a group of religious leaders, along with Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, had placed a quarter-page ad in The New York Times after three inmates of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay had killed themselves. The ad said that torture “degrades everyone involved – policy-makers, perpetrators, and victims…. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation….”

RKB