Now to be fair, Bush and Cheney have consistently denied that waterboarding is torture. This position is supported by a compliant DoJ Office of Legal Council, which was prepared to offer legal cover to the devouring of newborns on the White House lawn at midnight if it was requested. But there is no doubt. Waterboarding, the practice of using water to drown a subject within seconds of his life, only to allow a bit of breath before drowning the hapless victim once again, has been denounced, criminalized and prosecuted as torture, an inhuman brutality that produces not information, but desperate, hopeful confessions to any crime the dying subject might think will improve his objectively slim chances at survival not just in recent times, but for centuries.
By now we're all too familiar with the history. Often used during the Spanish inquisition, the 'water torture' was used steadily down through the ages because of it's combination of effectiveness at securing a confession and it's unusual (in the realm of torture) capacity for leaving an unmarked and (physically) undamaged subject. After World War II, Japanese troops were tried for war crimes that included waterboarding prisoners. During the Vietnam war, at least one American soldier was court martialed for waterboarding NVA prisoners. In short, pathetic attempts by the Bush administration to re-brand waterboarding as a method of interrogation that falls somewhat short of torture in some technical sense will never be able to overcome hundreds of years of common sense and legal decisions.
All of which brings us to the pre-release hype for "Decision Points", the memoir from George W. Bush. In it, he readily offers that when the CIA asked him if they could waterboard Khalid Sheik Mohammed, his response was an enthusiastic "Damn right!"
The first interesting question is why would he do that? You know his lawyers vetted the book, and there can be no doubt that they strongly encouraged him to describe these events more ambiguously. It's what lawyers do, and it is not difficult to come up with a way to tell the same story without explicitly admitting ordering an act of torture in violation of US and International law. So one cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that he was completely confident, likely to the point of having received personal assurances from Federal prosecutors, that he would enjoy de facto immunity from prosecution in the US for the extent of his lifetime. And so, it seems, he will.
But George Bush is, at 64, a relatively young man. A former President, wealthy and powerful, with a large circle of wealthy, powerful, pampered friends. He's without doubt an arrogant man, thoughtless and impulsive, with an expectation that he will get what he wants. And now, as a result of the admission, much of the world is closed off to him today. It is the richest of ironies that this President, who made such self-serving noise about the benefits of democracy will now be unable to travel to any real democracy in the world out of fear of prosecution under international treaties covering war crimes and torture. Sure and he will be able to travel freely and without concern to any of the authoritarian dictatorships he counts among his friends and allies, from Saudi Arabia to China. But any thoughts of travel to the democratic nations of Europe, South America and South Asia will give him pause. One can easily imagine a judicial prosecutor in France or England or India taking him into custody, at least for questioning.
But despite the small sense of justice one might feel knowing his monstrous actions will cost him a few of the perks of office and wealth, and even some marginal bit of prestige, it's important to recognize what he has once again done to us all, collectively, the (hopefully) final insult of a foul era. As Americans, we are frequently surprised by the hate and anger expressed by people around the world at our actions, but even more surprising might be how ultimately limited the hate and anger actually are. Even as we murder Pakistani citizens with impunity, and bribe the corrupt Pakistani government for their complicity, even as our troops operate in other nations without a thought to their sovereignty, even as our intelligence services spy, murder and bribe in nations on every continent for ill-defined but certainly self-serving purposes, much of the world sees the tremendous wealth, the dynamic energy, and even the shining promise of our founding documents, and their anger and outrage at our brutal, destructive actions is muted. To a large extent, that is because of who we are as a people. Or, more accurately perhaps, who they've come to believe we are as a people.
But who are we really, if our elected leadership freely admits to horrific criminal acts and is not only not prosecuted for it, but is rewarded? What does it say about us, finally, when a man elected to the position they call "leader of the free world" not once, but twice, can arrogantly stand up before the world and announce proudly that he is a torturer? How can we continue to call out the likes of Omar al-Bashir or Kim Jong-il for their savage mistreatment of their people when our leader admits to the same actions with a smile? This man, this smug, repulsive man-child has single handedly made America a rogue state, and he has done it in all our names. While much fiction has been produced exploring what might happen if America elected a sociopath with no values, no compassion, no humanity, here it is, played out before out eyes. And while the real-world outcomes of that very scenario might have been more prosaic, they are ultimately even worse than many of those envisioned. For we are left tarnished, devalued and exposed for what HE is, a venal, greedy thug for whom power is the only measure of value, and human suffering is merely a coin to be spent in pursuit of other goals.