Last year on an Afghan mountainside near the Pakistan border, a group of U.S. paratroopers on patrol spotted a 14-year-old hiding a cache of weapons and explosives. In the presence of a Sun reporter, they forced the boy to kneel on the rocky ground and put all his weight on his knees for an hour while heavily armed soldiers angrily questioned him.
Several times, the boy grimaced from the pain, closed his eyes and tottered, looking as though he were ready to faint. But he never admitted hiding weapons, even as soldiers scouring nearby caves stacked rockets, rifles and thousands of bullets in the dust nearby.
The weapons could have been used in deadly attacks. But the paratroopers were clearly uneasy about inflicting pain to leverage information, and - although they threatened to arrest their suspect - finally released the teenager with a warning. He was, as one said, "just a boy."
The incident illustrates the questions the United States has been facing since the Sept. 11 attacks: How much pain and suffering should American forces use in trying to extract information from suspected terrorists? When does physical and psychological pressure become cruelty, degradation and torture?
Thousands have been imprisoned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and in secret facilities around the world. Americans or foreigners working on our behalf have used isolation, stress, fear and pain during interrogations - to the point, critics say, of torture, which is outlawed by international law.
It's hard to say what has been accomplished by these techniques: The United States has deliberately cloaked the detention of most terror suspects behind a veil of secrecy and ambiguity.
But what some are calling America's gulag has produced outrage from enemies and allies around the globe. More important, perhaps, the practice has divided and disturbed Americans at home.
America is not so much a nation as a collection of nations. What unites us is not a common ethnic, racial or religious heritage but the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy.
Other countries may feel justified in using torture, as a matter of self-preservation. But for the United States, means and ends form a more complicated equation. We are what we believe. And we trample on our beliefs at our peril.
"It's not about them, it's about us," said Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war who was tortured by the North Vietnamese. "This battle we're in is about the things we stand for and believe in and practice. And that is an observance of human rights no matter how terrible our adversaries may be."
McCain spent weeks pushing the White House to accept a ban on cruel and inhumane treatment of terror suspects held in the U.S. or abroad, and finally succeeded Thursday.
The agreement, President Bush said, made it "clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the International Convention on Torture, whether it be here at home or abroad."
The deal was struck after McCain agreed to give CIA interrogators the right - already extended to members of the U.S. military - to defend themselves against charges they tortured or abused detainees by arguing that they were following a lawful order. Vice President Dick Cheney had insisted on providing additional protection for the CIA.
U.S. law, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994, already ban torture, defined in the latter document as "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental." The United Nations agreement and others also prohibit lesser acts of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" for prisoners.
But after Sept. 11, Bush administration officials sifted through the seemingly plain language of these laws - focusing on words like "torture," "severe," "cruel," and "degrading" - and found a lot of elasticity and ambiguity.
In the summer of 2002, Justice Department lawyers drafted a memo that, essentially, said the United States had the right to use any interrogation technique as long as it doesn't produce the kind of pain a person might feel when suffering organ failure or death.
According to government reports and news accounts, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have sometimes resorted to beatings, suffocation, sleep deprivation, electric shocks and the use of lunging dogs while questioning prisoners.
The United States has also created a network of secret prisons in Thailand and Eastern Europe, The Washington Post's Dana Priest reported. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, and others say the United States and Britain use information gathered through torture in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and many other places.
Britain's highest court ruled this month that information obtained through torture could not be used against 10 criminal defendants suspected of conspiring to commit terror.