It's Not Torture, Really!

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Obama

President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington. Seeking to move beyond what he calls a "a dark and painful chapter in our history," President Barack Obama said Thursday, April 16, 2009, that CIA officials who used harsh interrogation tactics during the Bush administration will not be prosecuted. Gerald Herbert/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Gerald Herbert/AP

The ability to deny reality is hardly unique to conservatives. There are some people on the left, for example, who believe Hugo Chavez is a model democrat, and others who remain convinced that George W. Bush didn't actually win more votes than John Kerry in the "stolen" 2004 Presidential election.

But the release of the CIA torture memos has caused an impressive uptick of reality-denial on the right, the most notable example being this surreal op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, both of whom served in the Justice Department under George W. Bush. "The Memos Prove We Didn't Torture," reads the title of their piece. How do the memos prove this? By showing, for example, that "walling" – that is, smashing a detainee against a wall, which sure sounds like torture – was approved only if a flexible wall was used to reduce the probability of injury. "Their shoulder blades – not head – were the point of contact, and the 'collar' was used not to give additional force to a blow, but further to protect the neck," write Rivkin and Casey in case you weren't convinced yet.

The authors don't say whether doing this twenty to thirty times, as was officially sanctioned, still fails to qualify as torture. According to them, waterboarding, too, was administered with specifications that prevented it from crossing the line, since the water "was not actually expected to enter the detainee's lungs." In the actual memo from which they draw this conclusion, then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee makes no effort to disguise the feeling this purportedly benign variant on a familiar torture technique was designed to induce: "This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic,' i.e. the perception of drowning." Making someone feel like they're drowning doesn't quite do it, just as sleep deprivation, dousing victims with cold water and other practices the State Department has described as 'methods of torture' in reports on other countries don't merit the label.

Rivkin and Casey could have saved their editors and themselves time by making a more succinct argument that would have sounded less, well, tortured: namely, that if Washington doesn't call it torture, it isn't torture, no matter what anyone else may think or say.

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