None dare call it . . . what is that word again?

It’s a word I associate with the McCarthy era and patriotic fanaticism; its commission is the cardinal sin against the nation-state and, as such, not only too easily flung at an ideological opponent but a frayed, simplistic concept, in that humankind ought to be reaching beyond national identities for global allegiance and a security that doesn’t devalue life anywhere on the planet. It’s a word I avoid. Certainly I’ve never accused anyone of it. Till now.

But as I have pondered the recently released torture memos and the sudden, long-delayed trickle of national soul-searching they have provoked over the crimes of the Bush era, I find myself shocked into new emotional territory.

Consider this little item from a McClatchy Newspapers story last week: “The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees” — commonly known as torture — “in part to find evidence of cooperation between al-Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.”

Indeed, Guantanamo interrogators, in 2002 and early 2003, were under pressure from way high up to “produce evidence” — can you feel the moral drift here? — that Saddam Hussein helped bring down the Towers so we could go to war with Iraq. This was when Khalid Sheik Muhammed was being waterboarded 183 times and Abu Zubaydah 83 times.

“The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results,” the psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, told Army investigators, according to the McClatchy story.

Let us pause the news cycle here and strip away the desperate delicacy of this language. The Gitmo intelligence crew was being told, from the highest levels of the Bush White House and the Pentagon — think Cheney, think Rumsfeld — to keep slamming these guys’ heads against the wall, to keep pouring water down their throats, to keep tormenting them with dogs and insects, until they blubbered, in their pain and terror, a word or two that would justify the long-planned (and completely pointless) invasion of Iraq.

This drags the torture “debate” out of the fog that mainstream pundits are paid to generate — does it work? is it legal? is it cruel? is it counterproductive? — and exposes something that is troubling at the level of the soul, and begs only one question.

Is it treason?

As I say, this is not a word I use with any comfort or certainty. It’s a word I distrust. But I use it now, summoning not its legal or constitutional meaning (though I don’t doubt that the U.S. Constitution was flushed down the toilet along with the Koran); but rather, the emotional core of the word as it bubbled up from Latin and French into the English language in the 13th century: to hand over, to betray a sacred trust. That was an age that, if nothing else, was serious about its values. Are we serious about ours?

Raise your hand, stand up, step forward if you think a deep moral violation has occurred in this scenario: An American president, or at least his primary advisors, circumvent international and domestic law to permit the use of cruel and occasionally fatal interrogation techniques on Muslim detainees (sometimes randomly arrested and completely innocent), not for the purpose of mining them for actual information, which might have national security value, but to get them, sheerly, to lie as instructed.

The question of the moment is now, no longer: Is torture un-American? It is: Are we, as a nation, bigger than our transgressions? Can we establish a commission or an investigation with a moral force greater than the trust that has been debased? Can we face up to what has been done in our name, establish accountability and find a way to atone and change?

Politically, the answer is no. Politics as we practice it these days — as the Democrats practice it, I should say — is just another form of market-based consumerism. It is trend-focused and desirous most of all of not offending. While the Republicans are masters at creating wedge issues and harnessing hatred in order to govern, the Dems lack the skill to harness the opposite force, compassion and empathy, so they govern without clarity or fervor. In the words of Michael Dukakis, they aspire to “manage.”

As citizens who are sick of the treasonous assault on our values, we can’t let up in our demand for a serious investigation into torture and other crimes of “the war on terror.” Finding and addressing the root causes of what we have done is the psychological equivalent of sustainability.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.