Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- Who to believe about the CIA's program of enhanced interrogation -- aka, torture?
On the one hand, the Senate's report states that it didn't produce any intelligence that could not have been gained by other means, that it amounted to brutality for the sake of being brutal. On the other hand, former Vice President Dick Cheney has asserted that the report is "full of crap," and that he is personally satisfied that the program was necessary and useful.
It seems as if an attempt to gain insight into what the state secretly does to those who threaten it is now being recast as a partisan debate. And that's tragic, because while some element of petty politics may indeed be involved -- as identified by former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, no less -- it shouldn't distract from the national, moral challenge raised by this report.
The challenge for the United States is how to best strike the balance between freedom and security.
Cheney's big government conservatives would argue that liberty sometimes has to be surrendered in order to protect life and limb -- and that this trade-off is a no-brainer when the people being asked to make the sacrifice aren't even U.S. citizens and are self-evidently a threat to the United States. In short: Who really cares what happens to America's enemies?
There are two problems with that perspective.
First, immoral acts are immoral acts regardless of who they are carried out against. All people are owed their dignity. That principle is there in Genesis: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." And it's there in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: All men are "created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."
So if the state does terrible things to foreigners, it is, logically, violating what are held to be the universal rights of all people. And make no mistake: The CIA violated rights when it practiced its "enhanced interrogations."
The report contains examples of a prisoner being forced to play Russian roulette, threats to sexually abuse family members, and a detainee dying of suspected hypothermia due to neglect. Such moral outrages are no less outrageous because they happened to bad people who can't vote in a U.S. election.
Second, faced with the gruesome details of this torture, we are compelled to question the idea that surrendering a little liberty to the state will result in increased security. It is true that there have been no more successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But intelligence operations have not noticeably made the world outside America any safer, because they do not address the political, religious and economic factors driving Islamism.
In my country of Great Britain, a soldier was virtually decapitated in the street by radicals -- both known, incidentally, to our security services. Iraq and Syria are fighting off a caliphate. American diplomatic personnel have been killed in Libya.
It may well be true that the horrors could have been greater without the CIA's dirty work. But, things that did not happen cannot be properly assessed. How does Dick Cheney prove such an unknown unknown?
Moreover, any state apparatus that operates beyond the law cannot truly be regarded as operating in the interests of the law. Covert operations in the 1970s designed to destabilize proto-communist movements did not produce healthy democracies, but resulted in the creation of authoritarian regimes that, without any regard for constitutional niceties, abused their own people.
The very fact that so much secret activity is found to operate outside the bounds of congressional oversight and, potentially, the Constitution itself suggests that it is more anarchic than conservative.
We can see the consequences of having too much faith in state institutions permitted to use violence in the recent riots over the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri. A tendency towards confrontation and an over-armed police force did not bring order, but instead created the conditions under which the town descended into chaos.
Do not presume, as Dick Cheney does, that the use or threat of state violence will guarantee civil peace. On the contrary, undermining liberty can also result in undermining stability.
We may find that public interest in this scandal wanes. The 2016 elections will neither be determined by candidates' stances on the NSA surveillance controversy, nor, probably, will the fate of a few terrorists trouble primary voters. Remember that George H.W. Bush did not suffer in the 1988 election for his alleged role in Iran-Contra -- indicating that voters often tolerate what many regard as an excess of well-intentioned enthusiasm in defending the nation.
But they ought to feel different. The proper functioning of a democratic republic does not exclusively rely upon having a moral leadership. It also requires having a moral citizenry that regularly scrutinize the things done in its name.