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(Title from W.H. Auden, via Benjamin Britten.)

I’m having a great deal of difficulty lately coming to grips with the fact that I live among brutes and torturers. We are in the middle of a public debate right now in the United States about whether torture is effective enough that we can excuse it. Dick Cheney and his squadron of soulless goons are taking to the television studios to argue that we obtained highly valuable information from the people we tortured, and that that makes it OK. They are lying. This is a monstrous debate, designed to distract us from the fact that torture is ineffective and illegal, and that torture is wrong.

But my heart sinks under the feeling that they are succeeding. I see surveys like the Pew Forum’s and am stunned with anguish that three out of four of my compatriots can imagine circumstances in which they’d approve of torture. It troubles me to look at those graphs and see that support for torture—let’s be direct: sadism and bloodlust—increases with religiosity, but that’s beside my main point, which is that I don’t know how to live among people who can’t understand that torture is wrong.

Perhaps these people are not monsters and ghouls; perhaps they’re simply uninformed and unimaginative. Perhaps they don’t know

Insects were used on a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old in order to find out where their father was; after locating their father, the CIA drowned him 183 times in one month. Prisoners were raped by way of gasoline enemas. A man was chained to the ceiling and kicked in the legs until he died. Young boys were raped in front of their mothers—on video. And this is only some of what’s already publicly known. I dread to think of what more is being kept from us.

But then, perhaps the torture advocates do know. As digby has come to realize, we are a torture nation: “The United States of America tortures its own children. It tortures prisoners. It tortures average citizens whom any policeman believes is failing to smartly comply with his orders and it tortures suspected terrorists.” I don’t know how to be a part of that society.

Let me approach the problem from a different path.

Ever since I became consciously aware of my own moral agency (when I learned about the Enlightenment in 10th grade, I’m pretty sure), I’ve made it a point to assume the best of people. I feel a duty of empathy, generosity, and openness to my fellow human beings, and the only way I can do right by them is to take a default attitude of care and optimism. This amounts to a general creed that people are fundamentally good. I know there are caveats to this assertion—I’m the one who brought up Dick Cheney before. But I see him and his kind as freaks, inevitable statistical outliers.

I have built my moral framework on this foundation. The ways that I relate to the people I know and the society I inhabit are rooted in my faith that all human beings are basically decent, under whatever fog of fear or ignorance or distrust may obscure that nature. But faced with a regime of torturers and their cheerleaders in my country, I am losing that faith. I am no longer blithely confident, as I was before, that if during a political discussion I bring up my strenuous objection to torture, I will find agreement. For all I know, the person I’m talking to may find the strappado a perfectly cromulent law-enforcement technique. And I don’t know how to recognize that person as a human being.

This uncertainty hasn’t yet infected all my interpersonal dealings, of course; I know, for instance, that my husband and my friends have moral compasses that don’t point “straight down to hell.” Unfortunately, for fear of what I may hear, I have not brought myself to confirm the same about all of my family.

The disorientation and paranoia I’m describing reminds me somewhat of the aftermath of Prop. 8′s passage. For a couple days, I felt like a character in a World War II movie who had parachuted in behind enemy lines and couldn’t tell the resistance from the secret police. I went to the grocery store and couldn’t help wondering whether the mother I saw digging through the tomatoes with her toddler had voted to revoke my right to marry the man I love, or whether the chef at the sushi counter had a Yes on 8 sign hammered into the ground in front of his house, or whether the high-school seniors sneaking wistful glances toward the liquor aisle had told their classmates to vote yes so that I wouldn’t come after their little brothers. As I said, that only lasted a couple days; it helped to have maps showing vote distribution, and to feel the palpable outrage at the proposition’s passage among everyone who is important to me. It also helped to have official support: Lawsuits to overturn Prop. 8 were filed immediately, and city and county governments from all up and down the state joined in. Both houses of the state legislature passed resolutions condemning the proposition. I felt like I was part of a community that recognized a wrong, and that recognition reached upward into positions of power.

And that’s missing, when it comes to torture. I know I am part of an anti-torture community: digby, Marcy Wheeler, Fred Clark (and his wonderful commenters), Christy Hardin Smith, Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton, Jack Balkin, Marty Lederman, and Brian Tamanaha—these people are not monsters. These people are fundamentally good. These people are decent. But these people only represent about 25 percent of us, and I don’t know how I’m going to get back to trusting the other 75.