Lithwick: Why the Torture Memos Didn't Faze Us

In April of 2004, the world learned that American soldiers in Iraq had abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison. Images first revealed on CBS and in The New Yorker showed hooded prisoners standing on a box with wires attached to their hands and genitals; piles of naked prisoners stacked into a pyramid; prisoners forced to simulate sexual acts, often with grinning GIs on hand to point and offer a jaunty thumbs up. The reaction to Abu Ghraib was swift and bipartisan. Within days, President George W. Bush had offered a public apology for "the terrible and horrible acts," and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, took "full responsibility" for the scandal, promising the offenders would be brought to justice because the victims "are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't do that." With the exception of a handful of outliers—Rush Limbaugh said the abuse was "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation," and Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, claimed to be "more outraged by the outrage than … by the treatment"—American reaction was universal revulsion.

In April 2009, President Barack Obama released four government memos from the Bush era, laying out legal justifications for prisoner abuse far more shocking than anything seen in the images from Abu Ghraib. Prisoners could be thrown into walls, waterboarded, shackled to the ceiling for hours, deprived of sleep for up to 11 days and locked in coffinlike boxes. But the reaction could not have been more different from Abu Ghraib. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former attorney general Michael Mukasey quickly penned an editorial in The Wall Street Journal condemning the release of the memos and defending the interrogation techniques. Former vice president Dick Cheney insisted that the Obama administration now needs to "put out the memos that showed the success of the effort." Conservative pundits casually liken waterboarding to prep-school initiation, and claim that anyone who opposes prisoner abuse must simply hate America. The president himself asks us to move on. And the great number of ordinary Americans who have, in fact, expressed outrage are dismissed as members of the bloodthirsty "hard left."

In some ways it's easy to account for the differences between the response to Abu Ghraib and the reaction to the torture memos. The torture at Abu Ghraib was documented in images, rather than mere words, making it harder to play down or parse out. The Justice Department's "torture memos"—written in dispassionate legalese—almost sound reasonable. The abuses at Abu Ghraib were of low-level prisoners, whereas the torture memos purport to target what some thinkers have dubbed "ticking time bombs"—high-level terrorists with critical information about imminent strikes. But there's one other factor that accounts for the horror differential between the torture memos and Abu Ghraib, and that's Abu Ghraib itself. Because after Abu Ghraib, America seems to have lost its capacity to be truly shocked by torture. As chilling and brutal as the images were at the time, they have, in the intervening years, lost their power to repel us. They have become—abetted by endless viewings of Jack Bauer on "24" and interminable national debate about what constitutes torture—emblems of what America is at least willing to consider.

When we first saw those now iconic photos from Abu Ghraib, most of us still believed that America wouldn't torture. We had no inkling at that time that—in violation of domestic and international law—the U.S. government had already waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in one month in 2003. Learning of the sexual humiliation and stress positions used at Abu Ghraib represented a brief and terrible loss of innocence for Americans. But you can only lose your innocence once.

After Abu Ghraib, the idea that prisoners could be stripped naked and humiliated, or terrorized by dogs, or piled up like human Tinkertoys was not just in the back of our minds but also back on the table. Less than two years after we learned of the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, Congress had passed legislation legalizing most of the "alternative interrogation tactics"—the stress positions and sexual humiliations—that had so offended us months before. Some of the prisoner abuse that had flattened us in 2004 had been normalized to the point that it was legal a year later. And once you are desensitized to hoodings and nudity, is a little simulated drowning or being bounced off a wall really all that much worse?

The MPs caught abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib always claimed they did so because they were merely following orders from superiors—orders to "soften up" the detainees so they would be more amenable to interrogation. One can't help but wonder whether the MPs inadvertently softened up the rest of the country as well. In the years since, we have become so casual about torture that we now debate openly its efficacy—something nobody would have attempted to do in 2004. After Abu Ghraib, we still fretted about the morality of prisoner abuse. By the time we laid eyes on the torture memos, all we care about is whether it works.