Some people seem to see nothing between zero and infinity. Things are either categorically all right or they are categorically off-limits. This kind of reasoning — if it can be called reasoning — is reflected in the stampede to ban torture by congressional legislation.

As far as a general policy is concerned, there is no torture to ban. Isolated individuals here and there may abuse their authority and violate existing laws and policies by their treatment of prisoners, but the point is that these are, in fact, violations.

When some individuals violate laws against murder, no one thinks that requires congressional legislation to add to the existing laws against murder. What it calls for is enforcement of existing laws.

Banning torture categorically by federal legislation takes on a new dimension in an era of international terrorist networks that may, within the lifetime of this generation, have nuclear weapons.

If a captured terrorist knows where a nuclear bomb has been planted in some American city and when it is timed to go off, are millions of Americans to be allowed to be incinerated because we have become too squeamish to get that information out of him by whatever means are necessary?

What a price to pay for moral exhibitionism or political grandstanding!

Even in less extreme circumstances, and even if we don't intend to torture the captured terrorist, does that mean that we need to reduce our leverage by informing all terrorists around the world in advance that they can stonewall indefinitely when captured without fear of that fate?

This is not only an era of international terrorist networks but also an era of runaway litigation and runaway judges. Do we really want a federal law that will enable captured terrorists to be able to take their cases to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals?

Regardless of what the freewheeling judges in that unpredictable body may end up deciding, they are not likely to decide it soon. Anybody can call anything "torture" at virtually no cost to themselves but at huge costs in money and delay to the efforts to protect Americans from terrorism.

There is no penalty for false claims but potentially deadly consequences for letting international terrorists tie up our legal system by exercising rights granted to American citizens and now thoughtlessly extended to people who are not American citizens and who are bent on killing American citizens and destroying American society.

After decades of ignoring the fact that rights and responsibilities go together, it was perhaps inevitable that an undereducated and easily confused generation should include some who do not understand that the rights granted to captured troops by the Geneva Convention apply to those who have accepted the terms of the Geneva Convention. It does not apply to people who are not troops and who have blatantly violated the whole framework of that convention.

For more than two centuries there has been a tendency on the political left, here and overseas, to make wrongdoers look like victims rather than people who are victimizing others. So it was perhaps inevitable that some would extend this attitude from criminals to terrorists.

But it was not inevitable that most would carry things this far or that so many others would be taken in by the rhetoric of moral superiority — or be oblivious to the implications of an international network of cutthroats bent on destroying us even at the cost of their own lives.

Think of those implications. During the last election, Osama bin Laden warned Americans that those places that voted for President Bush would be targeted for terrorist reprisals.

We could ignore him then. But will our children and grandchildren be able to ignore similar threats after the terrorists are given nuclear weapons by Iran or sold nuclear weapons by North Korea?

This is a chilling prospect under the best circumstances. It is madness to tie our hands in any way in trying to forestall or counter the catastrophic potential of international terrorism.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.