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CIA interrogators violated the guidelines for interrogation of supposed terror suspects by threatening suspects with guns and power drills and even suggesting assaulting one suspect’s mother and family, according to recent news reports.

Americans were horrified to hear what we might have suspected was happening in “secret prisons” – all under the auspices of obtaining information to prevent further activity.

What does it mean when we suspect that something is going on and yet are horrified to find out it has happened? And perhaps, more pertinent, are we complicit?

I can’t think of a more iconic scene among films produced in the 1990s than the Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson courtroom face-off in “A Few Good Men.”

“I want the truth!”

“You can’t handle the truth!”

Now replace the shiny-haired, eyes-steeled-with-purpose Tom Cruise with the taller, moustached Attorney General Eric Holder. On the witness stand, instead of Jack Nicholson as the decorated Col. Jessup, see the spectacled scowl of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The debate is virtually the same. Cheney screams: “You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!”

Holder says, “I want to know what happened? Did you order the code red?”

And Cheney, while not officially copping to it at first, does nothing but defend his and others’ actions as necessary and legitimate – the kind of things that “save lives.” And despite a certain terrifying gleam in his eye, for a second, you have to wonder if he could be right. That’s when you try to nail him down and that’s when he says, “You bet I did.”

This is what torture does to us. Many have talked about what it does to its victims, and we are right to consider it in that light. We should be concerned about how we treat others first and ourselves last. But years of American individualism have rendered the collective American psyche an us-first mentality that seems incapable of moving beyond self to neighbor so I’ll try to make the argument that way.

Planes crashed and towers fell. Lives were lost, thousands of them. And despite all my peace-loving ways, one of my first thoughts as I stared slack-jawed at the TV that September morning was, “Who would do this? They should have thought it through some more. I don’t think I’d mess with the largest military on Earth and a president who used to govern a state that executes more prisoners per year than most other states combined.”

Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit that when collectively punched, my first thought was how hard back we would hit. I’m not proud of it, but I’m prepared to say it was my first thought because it is my most basic, human, gut-level reaction.

I distinctly remember thinking next about the Middle East and about how laughable all this would seem to them. Here was America covering one horrific attack when their news reports were full of daily attacks. We had always thought ourselves immune.

At that point I started wondering what principles were under attack. Capitalism and excess? Corporate greed? Maybe even the more noble ideals of genuine democracy and individual freedom?

A lot has happened in eight years, but our individual reactions to the attacks of Sept. 11 still provide the primary lens through which we understand the torture issue.

Cheney has been vilified as the representative of our most basic reaction: Hit back, strike harder, faster and with more force than we were hit. If possible, make it a knock-out. It may be our first reaction, but that does not mean it is our best reaction.

Torture crosses all sorts of lines. If a 10-year-old did to an animal what CIA operatives have done to terror suspects, we would call a therapist and have him examined for psychopathic tendencies. The fact that individuals not only carried on these kinds of interrogations, but that in many cases they were instructed to do so, raises the stakes even higher.

This is not the capricious act of one, but evidence of a systemic influence. On some level, in between the perceived need for protection – for wanting someone on that wall – we didn’t stop to think what kind of people we were hiring to patrol it.

“A Few Good Men” does what all good art does: It holds a mirror up to society and to the beholder. It forces us to align ourselves with the truth-hungry attorney and the rabid-yet-convicted commanding officer. We have to choose which voice we will listen to as our basic survival senses struggle against our nobler efforts at reason and diplomacy.

The “torture issue” raises the same moral challenge: Do we stay at the fight-or-flight response? Can we see through the false dilemma to a better vision of humanity – the kind of higher level thinking that we always said separated us from the rest of the created world?

Perhaps now is the time to resolve ourselves to what we will not, what we cannot, what we must not do lest we be forced to rely once again on our most basic reaction.

Trey Lyon is associate pastor for faith development at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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