On a human level a lot of what they're saying makes sense. We're under attack. The people who attack are mean and uncivilized, in that they're not bound by any constraints of decency. Then we capture people who we suspect are linked to our attackers. In order to extract as much information from them as possible we rough them up a little, expose them to "stress-situations". Fair enough. They're most likely bad people anyway, and besides it's all for a good cause: Leading us to our attackers so we can punish them, and preventing future attacks.
So far so good. Although it is not clear to me why we would stop at stressful situations, these are "bad" people so why not torture them a little to protect American lives. Also, there is the issue of innocent victims who have been wrongly captured (90% of the Iraqi victims of US torture by some estimates) but we'll leave that be as well. A conservative would probably argue you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. These are both reasonable (if not very "nice") arguments.
However, on two fundamental issues I really don't understand the conservatives at all. The first is purely practical, the second has to do with what (little) I know about human history.
First off, why do we never hear conservatives question the value of information extracted under torture? Many pundits on the left are now saying that any information extracted through torture or duress is worthless. I don't buy that, but clearly some of it will be completely false. In most cases it will probably be a mixture of the two (as seems to have been the case with Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who first gave up some co-activists but then led the Bush administration to believe there were tight links between Saddam and al Qaeda). Bottom line: If you're a conservative hell-bent on saving American lives it seems you would care about this critical factor of the quality of our intelligence enough to debate it every once in a while. The bad intelligence leading to the invasion of Iraq is a giant case in point.
Second, why don't conservatives ever stop to ponder why the Geneva Conventions exist in the first place? Per my understanding, they came into existence mostly because civilized nations wanted to protect their own soldiers when they were captured. Not being "mean" to other people was a secondary concern. I think Senator Joe Biden put it this way: "The Conventions exist so that my son who is in the military won't be tortured!"
Again, there is some room for argument here. Terror organizations differ from foreign armies. Perhaps terrorists are essentially amoral and thus would treat their prisoners the same regardless of how America treated their bretheren. But the civillian populations from which they draw sympathy and support probably would care. At best, this is a highly debatable argument yet the conservative articles I've read recently don't even acknowledge it.
What is clear is that conservatives don't share my core belief that when you start disrespecting other people and treating them badly it will come back to haunt you one way or another. And this really puzzles me. It goes against everything I know about what makes us who we are and how I see the world. When I hear about somebody committing an act of "evil", my first impulse is to try to find out what caused this person to sink so low. To a conservative, in America, Iran or any other country, I guess the first impulse is "how can I kick his ass".
I recognize I am having trouble articulating how I feel about this. That may be why I've been feeling really fed up with politics in general and Bush and his supporters in particular lately. Matt Yglesias put it far better than I ever could:
Like many liberal writers, I've devoted a non-trivial quantity of time to documenting the various ways in which the Bush administration has sought to mislead the American people about a variety of manners pertaining to national security over the past few years. I must admit, however, that I've suffered from a limited ability to articulate exactly what the problem is here. You've got the kindergarten-level morality point that lying is a bad thing, of course, but that only gets you so far.Lying is bad, as is torture, disrespect, ignorance, and abuse of power. I don't know how else to put it. Perhaps I am naive. But that's how I see it.