I received a lot of responses to my Wired News column on the President’s illegal wiretaps, drugs which was not surprising. What was surprising was the level of vitriol and name-calling. One person actually called me a bimbo, viagra here and another told me to go back to Afghanistan if I hated this country so much. I guess should “go back to Afghanistan” if I hate our freedom so much that I write columns about how our government doesn’t respect our freedoms.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there are times when an illegal wiretap, information pills or a well-times session of torture, saves lives. Does that mean that the law should condone it? That there shouldn’t be a rule against it? That even if there is a rule against it, people should simply accept the wiretapper’s or the torturer’s representation that their actions were necessary and the principle should be disregarded? Or do we question that claim, investigate, even punish?

Yesterday, as part of a conversation we are having about the part denial and complacency plays in our daily lives, Richard Thieme forwarded me a link to a 2002 column he wrote about torture. One part of it is particularly relevant and brilliant. By brilliant, I don’t so much mean that its smart, though it is, but that it sparkles with a moral clarity that’s rare in today’s debates over anti-terrorism policies.

It is not news to say that beatings and torture have long been part of the interrogation process, depending on who is the suspect and who is doing the questioning.

We all know it happens. That isn’t the question. The question is, are we ashamed that it happens?

Feeling appropriate guilt and rationalizing behaviors by instituting policies that justify and support them publicly are two different things. That difference makes all the difference between a society that can’t always live up to its ideals and one that has forgotten where it put them.

What kind of society are we, Mr. President?

I find myself agreeing with an op ed in today’s Chronicle by Victor Davis Hanson about the problem of moral equivalence and its ability to occlude moral questions. The column criticizes the movies Syriana and especially Munich for the offense. I can’t find the link, but he says, “Moral equivalence is perhaps the most troubling of Hollywoods’s post modern pathologies – or the notion that each side that resorts to violence is of the same ethical nature.”

Not only have we have lost track of ethical responsibilities, by, for example, believing that any crime against terrorists is justified. But we have also lost track of the practicalities of following an ethical, rather than expedient course.

The conclusion I draw from the point on which Hanson and I agree is probably opposite the one that Hanson might draw. Hanson says, “Spielberg’s “Munich” assumes just such a false symmetry between the killers who murdered the innocent athletes and the Israeli agents who hunted them down- each in their own way victimized and caught in a cycle of ‘perpetual’ violence. Lost in this pop moralizing is the reality of 1972, when none of Israel’s neighbors was willing to accept the existence of the Jewish state within even its original borders. Back then, there was no change that Israeli agents would storm an Olympic event and murder athletes – but every probability that the Soviet bloc, Western Europeans and Middle East autocracies would never hunt down international terrorists who had done so to Israelis.”

In a simple world, all violence is equal. In a less simple world, terrorists and Israeli law enforcement, in the world of 1972, are not the same. But 1972, like the rest of reality, was even less simple than Hanson says. Historians have written that Israel continued revenge assassinations against people unconnected with the Munich Massacre for 20 years. As Richard suggests, it’s one thing to fail to live up to your ideals, and another to put them aside. Moral equivalence is one way to lose ideals. Moral self-righteousness is another.