what is america? It is a chunk of land; it is a racial and cultural kaleidoscope; it is a market. But more important and essential than any of these definitions, and the basis for them all, America is a legal and moral framework. It is the expression of those self-evident rights of man that Jefferson wrote about in 1776, and the fitful strides toward real equality we’ve been making ever since. And central to our rather arrogant notion of American exceptionalism has always been that our journey toward justice for all is not just America’s journey, but a path for the rest of the world to follow.
So what example are we setting for the world, and for Americans coming of age in this time of terror and torture? In many respects we have devolved to a pre-Enlightenment state. Take waterboarding, a practice recognized as torture since the time of Torquemada and, as such, banned in most European countries by the early 1800s. An American officer, Major Edwin Glenn, was court-martialed and punished for using the method on a Filipino “insurgent” during the SpanishAmerican War. The practice was officially banned by the U.S. Army after World War II, because of pow protections spelled out in the Geneva Conventions, but also because Allied soldiers had been subjected to waterboarding by German and Japanese soldiers—several of whom were sentenced to decades of hard labor, and even life, by war-crimes tribunals. This prohibition did not mean that Americans never used waterboarding: In 1968, the Washington Post published a front-page photo showing a GI holding down a North Vietnamese prisoner as South Vietnamese soldiers waterboarded him. But the soldier was immediately drummed out of the Army. And when Texas sheriff James “Humpy” Parker and three of his deputies repeatedly used the technique on accused thieves—some of whom gave false confessions to escape further abuse—the federal government investigated, a jury of a dozen Texans voted to convict, and in 1983 the men were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
The point is that while torture still happened, when incidents became public, they were condemned, not condoned. But not only has the Bush administration stridently defended the use of “harsh interrogation techniques,” the American public has signed off on such euphemisms. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, pundits predicted it might mean an end to the war, or, at the very least, a national conversation on just how far America was willing to depart from its core values to fight terrorism. Yet, four years after the photos of naked, debased detainees first emerged, the debate over torture has dissipated. The highest-ranking officer charged in the scandal got off with a slap on the wrist in August, but you could be forgiven for not knowing—we were the only publication to send a reporter to cover the full court-martial (“The Final Act of Abu Ghraib“). There are three federal investigations into the cia‘s destruction of videotapes of agents waterboarding Al Qaeda travel agent Abu Zubaydah—but none into waterboarding itself. When it was revealed that administration officials and congressional leaders of both parties knew all along that waterboarding was being used on prisoners, the nation let out a collective yawn. The only criminal investigation into the cia‘s extraordinary rendition program has come courtesy of an Italian prosecutor (“The Body Snatchers“). Each week, Fox’s 24 codifies the ticking-time-bomb justification for torture, while its reality TV show Solitary (“Voluntary Confinement“) pits isolated contestants against each other to see who can withstand the most torment. And then there are the other assaults being perpetrated against the Constitution. These days American citizens are being entrapped into participating in fake plots and locked up for simply thinking anti-American thoughts (“Department of Pre-Crime“).
What does our ambivalence toward our founding legal values mean in the long term? Social scientists note that most people—not just “a few bad apples”—are capable of committing torture. That they do so when encouraged by authority figures and joined by their peers, when the victims are dehumanized and the group’s inhibitions fall away. Once such cruelty is deemed acceptable under exceptional circumstances, its use often becomes institutionalized: The exception becomes the norm. The only remedy is true accountability, a real reckoning with what was allowed to happen and how we can get our moral compass back. We owe that much to soldiers like Ben Allbright, who’s caught between a community that hails him like a hero and the torment he feels over the abuse he doled out in Iraq (“Am I a Torturer?” ).
If we allow fear itself to rule, if we justify methods used by Spanish Inquisitors and roll back legal protections enshrined as far back as the 13th century, we lose everything we claim to be fighting so hard to protect. That’s why we must be vigilant against the creep of torture. Not just because it produces questionable results. Not just because condoning its use might increase the odds that it will be used on our own soldiers and citizens. But simply because it is un-American.