I'll See Your 183 Waterboardings and Raise You an Iron Maiden...

This weekend, I visited the reconstruction of a medieval castle in Calistoga, imported by vintner Daryl Sattui brick-by-brick from Europe. It included a dungeon with an anatomically correct rack -- did you know they not only stretched people, there was also a roller bar in the middle of the table with spikes in it? Then there was the spiked chair, which seemed not such a terrible thing until they lit a fire underneath it and all those sharp points also got red hot. And the hanging cages and Iron Maiden, which had nothing remotely ladylike about it.

They really knew how to torture in those days, far less pleasantly even than the excruciating scenes in the great, grim George Clooney movie, Syriana.

Maybe that's the problem I have with the torture discussion, which infested weekend talk shows like some virus: I've seen too many movies where even the good guy plugs the bad guy's fingers into a light socket for the greater good. Then there were the stories in other countries where I worked as a reporter, both from students and oppositionists who underwent some nasty stuff, and from some of the fascinating operatives employed by our very own intel services about their experiences on the giving end.

I just assumed that torture, with few limits, has gone on, is going on, and will continue to go on in the shadows at the Jack Bauer level of day-to-day international intrigue. And I don't just mean rendition subterfuge. Official conduct statements and rules always struck me as enforced and enforceable as jaywalking laws.

While so many people seemed entirely shocked at what Americans were up to in interrogations the last few years -- I thought CNN's Jeffrey Toobin was going to jump right out of his pundit-chair in outrage -- I was on the other end, surprised that there were any limits, directions or practiced prohibitions at all. I mean I do know there's a Convention out of Geneva and official positions all over the place forbidding torture. But the less pleasant side of human nature being what it is (remember the Stanford experiment) I figured there were always enough people who'll take what they think is the shortest course between two points. So serious pain and suffering will just be a part of real life politics.

I'm not saying it should be. Who doesn't want everyone to operate, as Mr. Obama said stealing from Mr. Lincoln, under the influence of "the better angels of our nature." These debates are healthy, however perverse the subject. Is this treatment ever justifiable? If so, for how many lives saved? What does it say and what do we want it to say about us as a country? Does this stuff even work and, depending on your answer to that, should it change your position on torture? And how clear are the lines of definition between hanging upside down for hours or being forced to listen to Nancy Sinatra for a day?

The current administration obviously has a different approach to these questions than the last one. Does that mean people won't get tortured? I doubt it. Though maybe between a tougher line on torture and the explosion of social networking (Abu Ghraib photos), more people will get busted for it.

The real surprise for me was that the only reason this is coming up at all right now is because, unlike previous White Houses, the last one actually decided to memorialize in policy memos not just the fact of this kind of treatment but also the specific prescriptions -- "no more than three dunkings during waterboarding...", etc." It's like someone was just asking to be, uh, nailed for this by leaving their fingerprints in the hot wax. Whatever happened to, "I'll know it when I see it?"

If we like that the curtain has been pulled back, we should be grateful to ex Veep Cheney and the others who put it all in writing. Including former Assistant Attorney General and current Federal Judge right here in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Jay Bybee. He's the author of what's being called the August 1, 2002 "Torture Memo" that stated, "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment was at times allowable under U.S. law.

Now there are calls in the press and moves in legislative bodies to impeach Judge Bybee. But even if he is removed from his judicial seat, he could, like a lot of other judges, go directly into private arbitration judging where, in what are basically secret tribunals with no right of appeal, he has complete authority to impose any sanctions he wants on parties in civil cases where arbitration is mandated. (Think: your credit card company.)

So, theoretically, instead of some economic injunction (you can't work anymore; you can't leave your job, you're powerless to prevent your company from screwing you), if he decided to impose what he called in his memo "enhanced interrogation," there'd be nobody to stop it.

See? I knew that stuff was going to keep going on somewhere.