America is ambivalent about torture. To generalize: our country is populated with two types of people, those who reject torture and those who do not.

But the distinction between the two is vague. Many of us– me, for example — condemn torture categorically but cannot predict with certainty how we would behave if we found ourselves in the well-worn time-bomb scenario, the hypothetical philosophical circumstance in which a little torture applied to the right person could prevent thousands of deaths.

Or what if vigorous torture applied to a deserving scoundrel could somehow prevent the tormented death of a beloved child? In these circumstances, I suspect that my and most people’s pure anti-torturing principles would be abandoned.

On the other hand, many Americans freely admit their willingness to torture, not only in hypothetical circumstances like those above or to obtain information under more ordinary conditions, but also as a punishment for our most vicious criminals.

Some of my students are particularly bloodthirsty, eager to apply Old Testament principles of retribution ("an eye for an eye") and to ignore the succession of (somewhat) more lenient Christian principles, as well as the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Or are they? I suspect that there’s a gap between their abstract willingness to allow a CIA. agent to torture a suspected terrorist and their readiness to do so themselves. Fortunately, most of us just don’t have the stomach for it.

In fact, one of the indices of the progress of civilization is our gradually increasing unwillingness to be as cruel to one another and to animals as we were in the past. I’d much prefer to spend a year in Guantanamo than 15 minutes in one of the torture chambers of the Spanish Inquisition. Waterboarding isn’t the rack.

Nevertheless, it’s disquieting to discover, after all that progress, how easily our government slipped back into mankind’s most uncivilized practice, committing torture in violation of our own and of international laws, even as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed, disingenuously, that the United States does not torture.

It’s a poignant reminder of just how fragile and tenuous cultural progress is. Here’s an example: We’ve come a long way with regard to race. Plenty of people are still alive today who remember when restrooms and water fountains were designated by skin color. Now we have a black president.

Yet as recently as last week, a highly educated and cultured university professor in another state casually used the N-word to refer to President Obama, reminding me of just how frail this sort of progress is and how fraught with the danger of slipping backwards. Sometimes I wonder if we make any progress, at all.

With regard to torture, like President Obama, I’m all for looking forward rather than dwelling on the past. And leniency is probably appropriate for CIA operatives who may have broken U.S. and international law while depending on the assurances of Justice Department lawyers.

But any new commitment to the rejection of torture rings hollow without a scrupulous accounting of our excursion into what Vice President Cheney calls the "dark side." Once we get our moral vision back in focus, Republicans and Democrats alike should recognize that this issue transcends party lines and that all Americans have an interest in understanding precisely what occurred and who was responsible.

And our interest should go beyond Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and extend to any torture that may have been outsourced to other countries; if this occurred I suspect it was much worse than waterboarding and our responsibility for it must come to light, as well.

The "dark side" was a dangerous place to go, and we’re lucky to have gotten back more or less safely. In very real ways, the progress of civilization depends on our willingness to account for the trip.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)

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