July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly
When the Abu Ghraib story broke, it seemed a literally incredible spectacle. The president himself expressed shock and disbelief and argued that it was the antithesis of American values. For a while, most Americans accepted this narrative—of a few “bad apples” improvising sadism on the night shift, the kind of thing individuals sometimes do in the context of a chaotic war. But in the past year, we witnessed a tipping point in the recognition of the enormity of what had occurred. As White House memos defining torture out of existence came to light, it became empirically irrefutable that Abu Ghraib was an exception to presidential policy only insofar as it wasn’t implemented by properly authorized personnel. The president eventually conceded earlier this year that he had indeed convened a group of his closest advisers to devise and monitor “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantánamo Bay long before the Abu Ghraib scandal; the attorney general admitted that the president had even authorized waterboarding, a technique that easily qualifies as torture in international and domestic law. It took a few years, but finally the real narrative emerged. The myth of American torture became the fact of American torture.
But something else happened as well. The chief defenders of these methods among the presidential candidates—Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani—failed to gain traction in the primaries, and the one Republican who has consistently opposed these techniques (and who had had some of them used against him in Vietnam) won the nomination. The two leading Democratic candidates have vowed to end abusive interrogation upon coming to office. And the pseudo-legal arguments of former Bush officials such as John Yoo were both repudiated by the administration itself and subjected to withering critiques in the legal community.
We learned, in other words, that America had crossed the Geneva boundaries in the years after 9/11. We also learned that America has the resources to correct itself in the end.