Enhanced interrogator?

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

George Washington's Waterboard

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Politics, we are often told, is about the future. That's one reason politicians kiss babies. But as a Mississippi writer pointed out, the past is ambitious. It dominates the present and loiters in the future. That's why Tea Partyers summon the ghosts of a colonial tax revolt. And it's why politicians climb aboard the shoulders of past giants when searching for a place to stand: Reagan here, Roosevelt there.

On whose shoulders do U.S. torture apologists stand? Ronald Reagan, typically an all-inclusive conservative retreat, appears unavailable. He supported the United Nations Convention Against Torture calling for the prosecution of anyone who engages in what, as president, he called "an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today."

Peter Beinart at the Atlantic reminds us that American torturers are not a new phenomenon. True -- but neither are they a celebrated one. Slaveholders are not much in vogue these days, and contemporary disclosures of U.S. military torture in the Philippines and Vietnam produced popular revulsion (among other reactions) even in their own eras.

There is always someone standing -- whether in the schoolhouse door or elsewhere -- on the wrong side of history. The assessment isn't entirely subjective. History honors progress, and it's deeply unkind to those who don't join the journey. Japanese internment camps, McCarthyism, the Palmer Raids -- none of these fear-inspired actions looks very noble in retrospect. Does anyone believe that 100 years from today Americans will be celebrating the torture of al-Qaeda operatives or the intelligence leads, true or false, that they provided under duress? 

The rationalizers and revisionists justifying torture seem remarkably free of historical claims. No Founding Fathers. No shoulders. No period clothes. Do they secretly imagine George Kennan or Dwight Eisenhower being scared stupid by Osama bin Laden? In contemplative moments, do they envision Martin Luther King Jr. wielding a waterboard?

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” former George W. Bush administration communications director Nicolle Wallace denounced "political correctness" and said, “I pray to God that 'til the end of time, we do whatever we have to do to find out what’s happening.”

Whatever we have to do”? Until "the end of time"? So we can “find out what’s happening"?

Apologies are specific. Excuses seek to cover the widest ground with a single stretch of truth.

The world is dangerous. Threats are real; consequences are lethal. Some moral compromise is unavoidable in grappling with the vicious amorality of terrorism. But what version of their country did the Cheneyites hope to preserve by the institutionalization of torture? And when they project themselves, their beliefs and their actions into the great flow of American history, who exactly do they think is standing there beside them?  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net