The Torturers Among Us

By Matt Welch |

Torture, as the former vice-president’s [recent] words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics–and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a “truth commission” by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland. For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment–of a willingness to “do anything to protect the American people,” a manly readiness to know when to abstain from “coddling terrorists” and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Don’t know about you, but the revelation that the United States of America was actively torturing people, and that there was a built-in cheering/apologia section for the project (including some self-styled libertarians), was my very own private National Pants-Shitting Moment (NPSM). To extend the bad metaphor a bit too far, from those days forward nothing ever really smelled the same, particularly the hot air (and Hot Air) emanating from those sections of the polity who either downplayed or defended the practice. As Cathy Young once put it around these parts, “It is a shocking sign of the times that we are having a debate about the appropriateness of torture.”

Partly because of that shocking fact, coupled with the happier development that the two major-party candidates for president were both at least rhetorically anti-torture, at some point, after an early head start, I stopped having that debate altogether. A pervasive Bush-fatigue also contributed, as did the NPSM of the economic crisis, which is ongoing and massive.

But as much as that latter crisis places me in daily opposition to Barack Hussein Obama, I am glad indeed that the new guy is dumping these documents into the public domain, and reminding us afresh of Mark Danner’s point: That there is a large and active contingent in the population who thinks that torture is an acceptable price to pay for the national defense. A stance that, among many other more serious flaws, takes as granted that the stuff works with anything approaching regularity. I don’t know if our long national nightmare is over just yet, but I’m certainly more optimistic about this particular toxic asset than I have been in a long time.