If you have the sort of mind that enjoys contemplating the square root of minus one and similar irrationalities, may I suggest the Tribune‘s lead editorial Friday. The subject was Michael Mukasey, the president’s nominee for attorney general. The Tribune called Mukasey a “brilliant jurist” who “deserves to be confirmed.” Yet Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee “are threatening to kill the nomination . . . unless Mukasey explicitly declares that a harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding is illegal.” And Mukasey won’t say that, even though he personally considers waterboarding “repugnant.”

He won’t say it “and he shouldn’t,” said the Tribune. “He won’t say it is illegal. And there’s at least one important reason: Such a declaration could open the potential for criminal prosecution or lawsuits against CIA officers who used the harsh interrogation practice. It could also endanger their bosses and anyone else who authorized the practice.” So the Tribune cheered Mukasey because “what he won’t do is be backed into a legal corner on a complex issue.”

Complex? “A vote for Mukasey is not a vote to defend waterboarding,” the Tribune continued. “The technique is illegal under the 2005 anti-torture amendment promoted by Sen. John McCain.” Also, Congress and the president have agreed on interrogation rules that prohibit it. And the army has renounced it. So the Tribune lauded Mukasey for refusing to say waterboarding is illegal even though it is illegal, and everyone else, including the Tribune, knows it. Couldn’t Mukasey have replied, “Yes, it’s illegal. It’s been illegal since 2005.”?

If the Democrats had asked Mukasey if murder was illegal, would he have refused to “be backed into a legal corner”?  Maybe the problem he and the Tribune are having is with what the legal definition of “illegal” is. Is this a new episode of parsers gone wild?