Weighing everything, President Barack Obama got it about as right as one could when he decided to ban the use of torture, to release the Bush torture memos for public scrutiny and not to prosecute the lawyers and interrogators who implemented the policy. But there is nothing for us to be happy about in any of this.
After all, we're not just talking about "enhanced interrogations." Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has testified to Congress that more than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with as many as 27 of those declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees, and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials.
The president's decision to expose but not prosecute those responsible for this policy is surely unsatisfying; some of this abuse involved sheer brutality that had nothing to do with clear and present dangers. Then why justify the Obama compromise? Two reasons: the first is that because justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart; and the other is that al-Qaida truly was a unique enemy, and the post-Sept. 11 era a deeply confounding war in a variety of ways.
First, al-Qaida was undeterred by normal means. Al-Qaida's weapon of choice was suicide. Al-Qaida operatives were ready to kill themselves - as they did on Sept. 11, and before that against U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen - long before we could ever threaten to kill them. We could deter the Russians because they loved their children more than they hated us; they did not want to die. The al-Qaida operatives hated us more than they loved their own children. They glorified martyrdom and left families behind.
Second, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida aspired to deliver a devastating blow to America. They "were involved in an extraordinarily sophisticated and professional effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction. In this case, nuclear material," Michael Scheuer, the former CIA bin Laden expert, told "60 Minutes" in 2004. "By the end of 1996, it was clear that this was an organization unlike any other one we had ever seen."
Third, al-Qaida comes out of a stream in radical Islam that believes it has religious sanction for killing absolutely anyone, including fellow Muslims. Al-Qaida in Iraq has blown up Muslims in mosques, shrines and funerals. It respects no redlines or religious constraints. One of its leaders personally severed Daniel Pearl's head with a butcher knife - on film.
Finally, al-Qaida's tactics are designed to be used against, and to undermine, exactly what we are: an open society. By turning human beings into walking missiles and instruments from our daily lives - cars, airplanes, shoes, cell phones, backpacks - into bombs, al-Qaida attacks the very feature that keeps our open society open: trust. If you have to fear that the person next to you on a plane or in a theater might blow up, there can be no open society.
And therefore, the post-Sept. 11 environment remains perilous. One more Sept. 11 would close our open society another notch. One more Sept. 11 and you'll be taking off more than your shoes at the airport. We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second Sept. 11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): "Do whatever it takes."
So Obama's compromise is the best we can forge right now: We have to enjoin those who confront al-Qaida types every day on the frontlines to act in ways that respect who we are, but also never to forget who they are. They are not white-collar criminals. They do not care whether we torture or not - bin Laden declared war on us when Bill Clinton was president.
I believe the most important reason there has not been another Sept. 11, besides the improved security and intelligence, is that al-Qaida is primarily focused on defeating America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world - particularly in Iraq. Al-Qaida knows that if it can destroy the U.S. effort (still a long shot) to build a decent, modernizing society in Iraq, it will undermine every U.S. ally in the region.
Conversely, if we, with Iraqis, defeat them by building any kind of decent, pluralistic society in the heart of their world, it will be a devastating blow. Odd as it may seem, the most dangerous moment for us is if al-Qaida is beaten in Iraq. Because that is when al-Qaida's remnants will try to throw a Hail Mary pass - that is, try to set off a bomb in a U.S. city - to obscure its defeat by moderate Arabs and Muslims in the heart of its world.
So, yes, people among us who went over the line may go unpunished, because we still have enemies who respect no lines at all. In such an ugly war, you do your best. That's what Obama did.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th. Avenue, New York, 10018.
© 2009 New York Times News Service