It's been 61 years since 10 prominent Nazis were executed, having been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II. Their fate said for all to see that in the civilized world, torture -- even during a war -- is always going to be viewed as a crime.
Yet, it seems that perhaps a third of Americans, according to opinion polls, believe it can be proper to torture certain captives in prosecuting the so-called War on Terror. Hey, why not? If popular action television heroes can use the old thumbscrew on their foes and get results within a one-hour format, then shouldn't the USA's armed forces, spies, and mercenaries/contractors have that same tool in their war toolboxes?
No doubt many other Americans aren't so sure when it might be OK to use torture. Still others have made up their minds that torture is immoral and against law of the land. And, of course, there are those who would rather not even think about such a dark subject.
Problem is, now the mainstream media are putting waterboarding stories at the top of the news. You can see waterboarding demonstrations at YouTube. Torture was central to the recent Senate debate over whether to confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general. Like it or not, torture has become an issue in the 2008 presidential race.
Meanwhile, since torture is illegal in America, President George Bush insists: "This country doesn't torture. We're not going to torture." Then, conveniently, the White House refuses to define torture, so its predictable denials remain something less than satisfying.
Banned by the U.S. Army Field Manual and international law, waterboarding goes back at least as far as the Spanish Inquisition. It has been a handy technique for sadistic inquisitors who want to leave no marks on their victims.
From his experience as a prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain knows something about being on the wrong end of so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques. On waterboarding McCain is one Republican who has been clear in his opposition to its use: "It isn't about whether someone is really harmed or not. It's about what kind of a nation we are."
Malcolm Nance has served as a counter-terrorism and intelligence consultant for the U.S. government. In his own military training he was subjected to waterboarding. In his recent testimony before a House committee devoted to examining torture and enhanced interrogation techniques, Nance said: "[Waterboarding] is an overwhelming experience that induces horror and triggers frantic survival instincts. As the event unfolded, I was fully conscious of what was happening. I was being tortured."
Nance was an instructor at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, so he supervised the actual waterboarding of trainees being taught how to cope with such depravities, should they be captured. The expert witness scoffed at the quality of information waterboarding produces, maintaining that since it triggers fear of imminent death, the strapped-down captive will say anything to stop the water from being forced into their lungs.
Back to politics: Watching Republicans other than McCain squirm when being questioned on this explosive issue -- inventing extreme scenarios and talking about "simulated drowning" or a "little dunk in the water" -- has revealed that torture could be a lollapalooza of a problem for many of the GOP's 2008 candidates. How long they can afford to continue to back Bush remains to be seen.
The more it is discussed the more disgusted everyday Americans are likely to become with the knowledge their president and his advisers authorized the use of such a barbaric practice. Virginians, like voters in other states, will probably become more interested in how their congressional and senatorial candidates stand on the torture issue.
Well, it says here the average undecided, somewhat apolitical American citizen is just not black-hearted enough to buy the Bush administration's absurd spin that waterboarding is not technically torture, because it isn't meant to kill or maim the prisoner being interrogated -- yes, something more than polite conversation, but something less than torture.
John Q. Public is not that scared anymore. Oh, four or five years ago he still was. Not anymore; in part because he’s grown accustomed to living on yellow alert. Moreover, regular old John Q. knows in his heart that nobody's legs are long enough to stand for torture and stand on the moral high-ground at the same time.
By the time the presidential campaigns are all over the wintry landscape in Iowa and New Hampshire, those in the game still backing a thoroughly discredited Bush/Cheney position on waterboarding could find themselves strapped to the wrong side of the torture issue. The drumbeat that would label Bush and Cheney “war criminals” could be much louder by then.
In the long run, torture is perhaps most indefensible because it inevitably poisons the future; more tortured parents and siblings means more children growing up obsessed with payback.