Why do we torture? Ever since the CIA embarked upon its program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” we’ve had to reckon with that question. That means we’ve had to reckon with the assertion that it is, at least occasionally, justified. And in that connection, perhaps the high watermark was the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, which the CIA has always insisted was made possible only through its torture-by-another-name.

That claim took something of a whack this week, when it emerged that a US Senate report has found torture delivered no key evidence that led ultimately to bin Laden’s death – and that the torture was worse than the public was ever allowed to know. Apparently whatever information turned out to be critical was extracted from standard interrogations, and whatever information came especially via torture wasn’t terribly important.

In the American context, it’s a significant finding; one that goes to the heart of the Bush administration’s legacy rehabilitation project. Presently, Bush’s resort to torture stands as a kind of moral and political scar. If it can instead be presented as the key to killing bin Laden, then presumably all is not merely forgiven, but admired.

So I understand the fight. And I understand the determination of (mainly Democrat, but also some Republican) senators to set the record straight. At stake is the legitimacy of torture, which would undermine the most foundational philosophical assumptions of open, liberal democratic government. But I can’t escape the feeling that some steps have been missed here; that the mere fact we’re even witnessing this argument reveals a remarkable, alarming shift in the public discussion of torture.

At least until very recently, even the most brazen, hawkish justifications of torture have presented it as an emergency measure of last resort. The classic scenario is that of a ticking time bomb: you know a bomb is about to detonate at any moment; you know the person you’ve captured has information that will help you locate and defuse it; you know that the only way to get it out of them in time is to bring out the thumbscrews or attach electrodes to your detainee’s genitals. It’s a very carefully constructed setting that proceeds on the understanding that if there’s no life-threatening emergency there’s simply no justification because, with time up your sleeve, conventional interrogation techniques should yield all the information torture will, and probably more reliably.

But even this highly concocted set-up has its problems. If the emergency is so pressing, and your detainee is so committed to his terrorism, he need only hold out for a short period of time. Or he need only give you enough incorrect information to stop the torture and send you chasing false leads until it’s too late. Then there’s the fact that in the real world, you don’t really have any way of knowing for sure that your detainee has the specific information you need to stop the explosion. Even if you knew for certain the detainee’s involved, once captured, you cannot be sure his information is up to date; that the plans haven’t been changed. It’s for these sorts of reasons (among others) that international law has long held that torture is never justified, even during national security emergencies.

But it’s one thing to argue about ticking bombs. It’s something else altogether to argue the case for torture in the total absence of any specific emergency. And yet, that is what the bin Laden case ultimately boils down to. Sure, bin Laden was a dangerous man. But no one can be, or even is arguing that his killing prevented an imminent attack. Indeed it’s far from clear that his killing has reduced the terrorist threat at all. One of the great ironies of the American political debate is that the same politicians spruiking the benefits of torture seem to be the same ones warning us that – even in this post-bin Laden era – al-Qaeda is as dangerous as ever. “Al-Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11” declared New York Republican Peter King last year. It “poses a bigger threat to attack inside the US right now than it did before 9/11” added retiring Michigan Republican (and aspiring talk-radio host) Mike Rogers.

The sheer lack of emergency here is evident even from the information said to have been unearthed. The most infamous concerns intelligence provided by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This is a megalomaniacal character who confessed ridiculously to more than 30 terrorist plots including attacks on targets that didn’t exist at the time he was taken to Guantanamo Bay. This is also a man who was waterboarded a whopping 183 times – which is not something you can do in an emergency, and which is curious for the fact that his torturers clearly thought there was something to be gained on the 183rd occasion that couldn’t be on the 182nd. If torture is so good for extracting crucial information fast, why didn’t they get what they needed, say, by waterboarding 150?

Certainly, it’s useful to know that torture didn’t propel the successful hunt for bin Laden. But the implicit question this raises is an important one: what if it did? Would that make torture a legitimate counter-terrorism norm, not in the case of emergency, but just as a matter of routine intelligence gathering? Do we not even need to ask any longer whether or not the same information – or even better information – might have been gathered through traditional methods? This, after all, is what the FBI has been insisting emphatically all along, much to the CIA’s annoyance.

Or is it simply enough for us to say that because these are evil people they somehow deserve to be tortured? If so, then let’s at least let’s say so explicitly. And let’s acknowledge that we’re articulating a new doctrine of torture far more suited to the world’s most brutal autocrats: that we’ll torture for revenge.

Waleed Aly is an Age columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.