Sometimes, the world can be such a simple, black-and-white sort of place. Let me give you an example. Imagine for a moment that the Iranians kidnap an American citizen from a third country. (If you prefer, feel free to substitute al-Qaeda or the North Koreans or the Chinese for the Iranians.) They accuse him of being a terrorist. They throw him in jail without charges or a trial or a sentence and claim they suspect he might have crucial information (perhaps even of the “ticking bomb” sort -- and the Iranians have had some genuine experience with ticking bombs).
Over the weeks that follow, they waterboard him time and again. They strip him, put a dog collar and leash on him. They hood him, loose dogs on him. They subject him to freezing cold water and leave him naked on cold nights. They hang him by his arms from the ceiling of his cell in the “strappado” position. I’m sure I really don’t have to go on. Is there any question what we (or our leaders) would think or say?
We would call them barbarians. Beyond the bounds of civilization. Torturers. Monsters. Evil. No one in the U.S. government, on reading CIA intelligence reports about how that American had been treated, would wonder: Is it torture? No one in Washington would have the urge to call what the Iranians (al-Qaeda, the North Koreans, the Chinese) did “enhanced interrogation techniques.” If, on being asked at a Senate hearing whether he thought the Iranian acts were, in fact, “torture,” the prospective director of the CIA demurred, claimed he was no expert on the subject, no lawyer or legal scholar, and simply couldn’t label it as such, he would not be confirmed. He would probably never have a job in Washington again.
If asked whether the Iranians who committed such acts against that American and their superiors who ordered them to do so, should be brought before an American or international court and tried, the president would surely not suggest that this was the moment to “look forward, not backward,” nor would his justice department give them a free pass.
You see what I mean? When evil is evil, the world couldn’t be more cut-and-dried. It’s only when, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling book Kill Anything that Moves, writes in “The Hidden History of Water Torture,” the acts in question are committed by Americans on Evil Doers, under the orders or encouragement of their superiors, based on policies set at the highest levels in Washington, that such matters become complex, shaded in greys, open to interpretation, understandable in human terms, and explicable by citing ticking-bomb scenarios (however imaginary).