This screen grab from a video shows Private Bowe R. Bergdahl, who is being held captive by Taliban militants.
The coward wretch whose hand and heart
Can bear to torture aught below,
Is ever first to quail and start
From the slightest pain or equal foe.
- Bertrand Russell
The torture debate in America got real three weeks ago.
Oh, the debate has been around for years now, of course, ever since the photos of what happened in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light. Men covered in feces, bent double and lashed to bedframes, their faith humiliated by the menstrual blood smeared on their faces, their bodies savaged by dogs, and worse, reports of the rape of women and children.
Yes, the torture debate has been around for a while now, recently revisited by President Obama, who condemned and discontinued the practice, and by enablers of torture like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, who have labored mightily to defend it. It's been quite the hot topic among the chattering classes of American political discourse, a dialogue in three parts: one group condemning the practice, another group championing it, and a third group - the media professionals - taking no position and trying not to offend anyone, so they can get the big names back on the set for the Sunday shows.
Three weeks ago, however, the whole nature of the torture debate changed irrevocably when an American soldier from Idaho named Bowe Bergdahl somehow fell into the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have him now, and God help him, because it was the United States government under the administration of George W. Bush that set the terms for how anyone captured can and should be treated.
If the Taliban decide Bergdahl has information they want, they can waterboard him until he talks. They can compress his body and cover him with insects, they can rob him of sleep and deny him food, they can beat him and slather his body with his own waste, they can shove sticks into his rectum, they can rape him, and they can murder him. They can hand him over to representatives of another government and have him whisked away to some far-flung dungeon where "enhanced interrogation" has an even darker and more savage definition. For sure, they can deny him due process of any kind and never, ever, ever, ever let him go home again.
They could do this whether or not the United States had engaged in similar practices, but because we did these things, they can do these things and still claim the moral high ground. Why not? It was the United States government under the administration of George W. Bush who plowed that high ground into the gutter. Everyone stands the same height when they're face-down in the sewer.