"Torture" is one of many current topics of significance that have been abandoned to the left. Leftist commentators have been allowed to set the terms, make the definitions, and generally run the argument without much in the way of serious opposition or debate.
No small number of elements of the War on Terror have suffered the same treatment. An offhand list would include profiling, wiretapping, border security, and rendition. All have been hijacked and turned into battering rams to support a particular left-wing interpretation of the War on Terror. The GOP has been unable to respond for a number of reasons: they've been blindsided, have been busy fending off corruption investigations, or simply couldn't or wouldn't defend certain obvious positions. As a result, the left has been able to peddle its version of events with near impunity.
"Torture" is probably the most egregious of these cases. That's the explanation for the sneer quotes. Because, quite simply, in much of the debate over "torture", we're not talking about actual torture at all. We're talking about rough treatment, harshness, or coercion.
The American left has defined these upward until they mean the same thing as torture, all as a part of their efforts to undermine the War on Terror in general. The core of this stance is the assertion that a slap on the head, several days without sleep, or hearing Rage Against the Machine played at full volume is fully the equivalent of torture in the classic sense. (Well... maybe we should reconsider that last....)
Of course, it's no such thing. Torture is easily defined as physical assault carried out over a prolonged period against a victim under complete control and holding the possibility of permanent physical or psychic damage. Official legal terminology contains the proviso that torture consists of acts that "revolt the conscience" We can also add, by way of Dashiell Hammett, that such actions must have "threat of death behind them". If they contain these elements, they are torture. If not, they're something less. Not necessarily something justifiable or commendable, but not torture either. (Another method of judging these actions is to ask whether the activity would excite an individual like Mengele or Yezhov.)
The left has succeeded, through a relentless media campaign (is there any other kind?) in obscuring this distinction. According to the latest criteria, torture is anything unpleasant that occurs to a prisoner while in American custody. (Overseas it's different. It's very, very difficult -- almost impossible, in fact -- for any developing or left-of-center regime to commit torture, no matter what they do to their prisoners. Unless, as in the rendition uproar, the U.S. is somehow involved.)
This campaign had its start with Abu Ghraib. According to the media narrative, the prisoners abused were "tortured". In truth, they suffered no such thing -- they were humiliated, which is something completely different. The backwoods types overseeing them did exactly what backwoods types will do when under inadequate supervision. (The commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, was said never to have set foot in the actual prison). This might well have progressed to something resembling actual torture over time, as they grew bored and sought more excitement. But they were discovered before that could happen.
A full-fledged conspiracy theory was worked up insisting that torture was carried out on orders of higher-ups reaching into the Pentagon and even the White House. It's difficult to follow the logic here - why this particular group of prisoners, most of whom were street-corner toughs, would interest these nebulous "higher-ups", and why, once targeted, they were subject to such lame procedures -- the nude pyramid, for instance - when far more effective techniques were easily available. But logic and consistency were beside the point, which was simply to make an impact and move on.
Abu Ghraib changed the public perception of torture. This new understanding was then applied to all levels of terror operations, most notoriously involving Guantanamo Bay. Much of what came out of Gitmo was rumor of the Koran-in-the-toilet variety, and no small amount of that conditioned by the Al-Queda practice of claiming torture under all circumstances when in custody, demonstrating that the Jihadis have a clearer understanding of the media than most members of our own government. The rumors were taken as true under the corollary, if Abu Ghraib, why not Gitmo, and served as the basis for calling for the closure of Camp X-Ray and its successors
Gitmo cemented the torture narrative. Torture became one of the central elements of the War on Terror, something brought up any time the media felt like flogging the U.S. or the Bush administration. The administration itself reacted with bewilderment, conceding most of the argument before it even began, allowing the opposition to set definitions and grounds, operating solely on the defensive. One of the few officials to take the offensive - legal advisor John Yoo, was responding to attacks on the so-called "torture memo", a document outlining the circumstances under which harsh treatment of terrorists would be allowed. No other acting official dared join Yoo. The most recent uproar concerns waterboarding, a practice that has become a media favorite because it is the only activity approaching torture known to have been carried out under official auspices. Waterboarding has played a large part in Judge Michael Mukasey's bid to become attorney general when he refused to define it as "torture". A number of Democrats, including the party's entire presidential slate, have declined to support Mukasey for this reason.
Waterboarding may be brutal, it may be nasty, it may even be uncalled for. But it's not torture. It does not inflict physical pain or damage. It does not destroy the victim. Its sole purpose is to create a sense of terror by arousing deep instinctive reactions against drowning, instincts shared not only by almost all mammals, but almost all vertebrates who don't happen to be fish. It is effective, it is quick, it leaves no scars and should revolt no one's conscience.
The sole person other than US pilot trainees we know to have been waterboarded is Khalid Sheik Muhhamed. Khalid broke within minutes (the practice involves wrapping the face in towels and then pouring on large quantities of water.) He was waterboarded for one reason alone: he was involved in the 9/11 attack, both preparation and execution, and authorities needed to know if any other such attacks were in store.
Involved in 9/11. What that means, precisely, is that KSM (as he's known in intelligence circles) was partly responsible for the murder of close to 3,000 people. That being the case, it would please me to learn that he was being waterboarded at least once every day of his life, and I'm sure I'm not alone. But what is being overlooked is that Khalid's case matches the one exception to the "no torture" rule almost universally granted by critics, including several of those same Democratic candidates: an emergency where the possibility exists that many lives may be threatened by terrorist action. Such a possibility existed in the case of KSM. As a result he suffered a short, nasty interlude, and the possibility was laid to rest.
The administration missed a serious opportunity with KSM. An opportunity to put him before the cameras, display him to the public, and say, here is your victim. Here is a man who was "tortured". The killer of your friends and neighbors. A dangerous individual. A man who has earned the most terrifying treatment allowed to the law: execution for murder. Here he is - who cares to defend him?
But that, of course, didn't happen, and now we have a reigning myth, one that can be dragged out and shaken in the faces of the public every time the administration, the military, or the intelligence community needs a beating. One that can be used as the basis for films like Rendition. One that will become a historical marker of the War on Terror.
There was a similar myth in Vietnam, one that everyone has heard at one time or another -- the helicopter story. A communist soldier is taken up in a Huey and threatened with being thrown out until he talks. After he does, he's thrown out anyway. The story is commonly featured in movies, "recollections" of the John Kerry type, and war "histories" of a certain slant.
What actually happened was this: two PAVN officers were captured by U.S. troops. They were from a unit supposed to be nowhere in the vicinity, and Army intelligence suspected an upcoming assault. But neither officer would talk. Then someone had a brainstorm: a Vietcong infiltrator had been shot the night before and was awaiting burial. Returning to the interrogation room, they dragged out one of the officers with suitable bellowing and threats. Once out of sight they removed his uniform jacket and cap, put them on the corpse and loaded it aboard a helicopter. With the chopper in the air, they returned for the other officer and hustled him out. Pointing to the Huey, they said, "Now see what happens to your pal."
At that moment, the corpse was thrown out, just far enough away so no details were apparent. It was an impressive drop, with the cap flying off halfway down. The second officer considered his interests and told the GIs exactly what they wanted to know. At which point his jacketless, capless companion was brought out of hiding for a good laugh all around.
Somebody told the story to a reporter a short time later. Knowing a great yarn when he heard one, the reporter wrote it up and sent it in. But an editor at his wire service thought it worked better with the officer actually being thrown to his death. So that's how it was rewritten, and published across the U.S. (Including in the home paper of one of the soldiers mentioned in the story -- the reporter had to be pulled out for his own safety.)
That's how "torture" will be treated in the annals of the War on Terror. Not as a procedure used on a sparing basis against the worst of the worst. Not the final measure of protection against terrorist action. But as a commonplace activity of degenerates and trash among U.S. forces. This impression may well last as long as the helicopter slander, and do a similar amount of harm.
Needless to say, none of the foregoing must be taken as approval of torture or any other kind of brutality. But that's just the point: the left has drawn a vicious cartoon in which every individual involved in fighting the Jihadis from the Oval office on down is being portrayed as the equivalent of the Abu Ghraib guards: halfwit knuckle-draggers capable of going out of control without warning. This can endanger us in any number of ways - encouraging officials to back off when they should bear down, to hesitate when they should strike. As Judge Mukasey stated in his letter answering the Congressional imputations:
"I would not want any statement of mine to provide our enemies with a window into the limits or contours of any interrogation program we may have in place and thereby assist them in training to resist the techniques we actually may use."
It's no news that the Bush Administration has done a horrible job of selling itself and its policies. Bush, being a Texan, evidently believes that accomplishments speak for themselves. But the great world, unfortunately, is not Texas. If you don't create your own narrative, lay down your own version of events, someone else is going to do it for you. And you probably will not like the results. J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.