Charles Krauthammer has one of those columns that provide a clarifying moment in the new Weekly Standard.

The subject is torture, one of those issues that elicit lots of hot air from politicians (which tortures me).

The key thing you need to know is that there are three kinds of prisoners. Here they are:

“First, there is the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle. There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head. His detention has but a single purpose: to keep him hors de combat. …

“Second, there is the captured terrorist. A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever. People seem to think that the postwar Geneva Conventions were written only to protect detainees. In fact, their deeper purpose was to provide a deterrent to the kind of barbaric treatment of civilians that had become so horribly apparent during the first half of the 20th century, and in particular, during the Second World War. The idea was to deter the abuse of civilians by promising combatants who treated noncombatants well that they themselves would be treated according to a code of dignity if captured–and, crucially, that they would be denied the protections of that code if they broke the laws of war and abused civilians themselves….

“Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people. And when on rare occasions we fail to do that, as has occurred in several of the fronts of the war on terror, we are duly disgraced.

“The norm, however, is how the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo have been treated. We give them three meals a day, superior medical care, and provision to pray five times a day. Our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Korans, which is the only reason alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo ever became an issue. That we should have provided those who kill innocents in the name of Islam with precisely the document that inspires their barbarism is a sign of the absurd lengths to which we often go in extending undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners. …

“Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don’t so easily apply. …”

Torture is a terrible thing-but sometimes it is the right thing to do (with the third category of prisoners). Senator John McCain, who claims to be against torture, makes exceptions-probably the same ones Krauthammer makes in this must-read article:

“If that is the case,” write Krauthammer, “then [McCain’s] much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in two very circumscribed circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture. Having established that, we can then begin to work together to codify rules of interrogation for the two very unpleasant but very real cases in which we are morally permitted–indeed morally compelled–to do terrible things.”