There was a scarcely noted but classic moment in the Senate hearings on the nomination of John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism “tsar,” to become the next CIA director. When Senator Carl Levin pressed him repeatedly on whether waterboarding was torture, he ended his reply this way: “I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and should not be done. And again, I am not a lawyer, senator, and I can't address that question.”
How modern, how twenty-first-century American! How we’ve evolved since the dark days of Medieval Europe when waterboarding fell into a category known to all as “the water torture”! Brennan even cited Attorney General Eric Holder as one lawyer who had described waterboarding as “torture,” but he himself begged off. According to the man who was deputy executive director of the CIA and director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in the years of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and knew much about them, the only people equipped to recognize torture definitively as “torture” are lawyers. This might be more worrisome, if we weren’t a “nation of lawyers” (though it also means that plummeting law school application rates could, in the future, create a torture-definition crisis).
To look on the positive side, Brennan’s position should be seen as a distinct step forward from that of the Justice Department officials under the Bush administration who wrote the infamous “torture memos” and essentially left the definition of “torture” to the future testimony of the torturer. (“[I]f a defendant [interrogator] has a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture.”)
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And keep in mind that Brennan has good company for his position. Recenty, the Open Society Institute published the most comprehensive investigation yet of the offshore system of injustice that George W. Bush and his top officials set up to kidnap “terror suspects,” imprison them without charges or end, and torture and abuse them, or “render” them to other countries willing to do the same. It turns out that 54 nations (other than the U.S.) took part in setting up, aiding, and maintaining this American global gulag. It’s a roster of dishonor worth noting: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
Remarkably, according to the Open Society report, just one of those states evidently had a lawyer on hand who could actually recognize torture, even if well after the fact. “Canada,” its authors write, “is the only country to issue an apology to an extraordinary rendition victim, Maher Arar, who was extraordinarily rendered to, and tortured in, Syria.”
Given this, Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Lost Jungle City, explores a geographical miracle in his latest TomDispatch post, “The Latin Exception”: of those 54 countries, only two, the U.S. and Canada, came from the Western Hemisphere!