Crisp: Conversation of torture should be prominent in 2016 campaign

Gail Collins will return.

Two interesting stories appeared in the same recent edition of my local newspaper.

The first involves an awkward problem that Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush faces: His brother, former president George W. Bush.

Many Republicans have managed to hold their noses when they consider Bush’s administration, especially his ill-advised invasion of Iraq. Jeb Bush has stumbled over this issue several times, looking for ways to put the best face on a huge foreign policy error.

He has admitted that “mistakes were made” and has relied on the dubious proposition that “taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal.” But this simplistic notion depends on the electorate’s failure to notice the chaos that the Iraq war unleashed.

A sub-element of Jeb Bush’s problem surfaced in an article under this headline: “Bush won’t rule out use of torture.”

Bush was asked by Iowa Republicans if he would rescind President Barack Obama’s order banning enhanced interrogation. He said that “in general” torture is “inappropriate.” But, Bush said, “I don’t want to make a definitive, blanket kind of statement.” He was suggesting that brutal interrogations may sometimes be called for to keep the country safe.

So if Jeb Bush becomes president, torture appears to be back on the table.

Not so long ago torture was an ordinary part of the judicial systems of many countries even as they made fitful progress toward enlightenment. Now torture is generally proscribed by international law, and most advanced countries agree that the practice should be left in the past. Of course, a great deal of torture still takes place, but we’re embarrassed enough to try to cover it up or to deny it outright. Thus George W. Bush asserted in 2007: “This government does not torture people.”

This statement evidently wasn’t true, but at least it reflected the high-minded position that torture is a practice that civilized countries shouldn’t permit.

But the same newspaper that reported Jeb Bush’s position on torture carried this story, as well, a New York Times report on the Islamic State’s “theology of rape.”

Last summer Islamic State fighters invaded Yazidi villages in northern Iraq. Men and older boys were executed. Women and girls were inducted into a highly organized system of sexual slavery.

The Yazidis’ polytheism makes them vulnerable to the Islamic State’s perverse interpretations of the Quran. Space doesn’t permit an adequate description of the horrors still being endured by several thousand Yazidi women and girls, but it’s in the same category as the Nazi outrages of World War II.

This raises an important philosophical question for all of the presidential candidates, as well as for all Americans: In the face of the Islamic State’s savagery, what level of brutality are we willing to accept in order to defeat them?

There are two easy answers: The first is that we can’t let the Islamic State drag us down to their level of savagery without compromising who we are. The second is that people who are capable of the vicious barbarism deserve everything we can give them. The pragmatic answer may lie somewhere in between.

Torture? Jeb Bush deserves credit for being more or less honest about this. This question should be a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.