LOS ANGELES — There are times when — from a moral standpoint — men and women simply should not remain silent. In such times, seemingly fine lines need to be turned into unequivocal hard lines. This is when the men and women of conscience stand out.

Consider the controversy about torture (the universally recognized term for extreme interrogation techniques) that is bedeviling America. It may be hard to believe, but only one serious presidential candidate so far has been outspoken about the need for the U.S. never to use torture.

That’s right, just one major candidate: The truth is, the U.S. presidential primary campaign is now a study in fuzzy lines. At a time when real potential leaders ought to be standing up, by and large they are falling all over themselves in an attempt to avoid taking firm policy lines that might alienate, oh, maybe 15 potential primary voters.

Moral waffling and macho posturing is not the style, on the vital question of torture, for Sen. John McCain. God bless him. And he should know. This candidate for the American presidency spent years in a Vietnam prison dump, where he himself was severely mistreated and other American soldiers were tortured.

Neither a draft dodger nor a dissembler, the Arizona senator, now 71, said at a recent college commencement about torture: “These tools are not American tools, and the easy way is not the American way.”

It is the difficult moral dilemmas in life that give bottom-line definition to our character and soul. In one way or the other, after all, all candidates favor a quality health-care system. No one is happy about the rich-poor divide. No candidate — as far as I know — offers anything other than a contemptuous view of Islamic terrorism. Those are the easy questions.

But should the American way of interrogation permit the torture of an enemy or suspect with potentially valuable, even explosive, information?

Two major ways of approaching this question are perhaps most incisive. One approach utilizes cost-benefit analysis: Would the quality and quantity of information obtained by torture justify the barbarity of the technique? The problem with this philosophical approach is that sometimes, if not often, the information is not useful or may be positively erroneous: Torture subjects will sometimes say anything to stop the pain.

The second classic approach is more principled. It does not try to toll up the gains and losses of torture, but would absolutely embargo certain methods of questioning — classic torture techniques — as unambiguous no-go areas for U.S. interrogators.

They are no-go because if we define ourselves by our conduct, doing the horribly unthinkable to others in a sense reflects back on ourselves as no better humans than the targets we are seeking to make into animals.

“I don’t know whether they’ve been involved in torture because I don’t have that kind of information,” said McCain, referring to recent revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency willfully destroyed tapes of CIA interrogations of suspects. “I do know that when tapes are destroyed of interrogations, it contributes enormously to the cynicism, the skepticism, and also is further damaging to the image of the United States of America.”

But don’t desperate times call for desperate measures?

The answer is that desperate times test true moral fiber in ways that ordinary times can’t even approach. Someone once wrote: “America’s patience has not often been severely tested. In a crisis atmosphere, America might impatiently reach for seemingly easy solutions. Faced with a serious and widespread [problem], how would America respond? Would it insist that its law-enforcement officers observe the letter of the law in all respects? Or would it grant the law-enforcement officer even more ‘discretion’? If so, how much?

“To what extent will the letter and spirit of the Constitution be regarded as an obstacle to order, thereby requiring revision or reinterpretation? Is it unthinkable that a ‘state of emergency’ could come to the United States.”

That set of questions was posed in 1981, in a book titled “Secret Police: The Inside Story of a Network of Terror,” written by myself and Andrea Darvi, now my wife. Its conclusion was that America is categorically different from bad nations only when it stays on the right side of the good.

“A secret police force is a horribly blunt and effective instrument of suffering,” we wrote. “This book is intended as a warning.”

Today, more than a quarter century later, at least one candidate for the White House takes a similar view.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is the author of a number of books, including “Understanding Doomsday” and “Confessions of an American Media Man,” just published, as well as “Secret Police.” Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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