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We Don’t Torture

New York – Asked in September 2006 whether there was anything wrong with the way American interrogators were handling “high-value” prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere, President George W. Bush famously responded: “We don’t torture.”

The definition of torture is notoriously slippery, but we have known for some time now that the former president was being, shall we say, economical with the truth. At the very least, American interrogators were in breach of the Geneva Conventions, ratified by the United States, against “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

Tying a person to a board and bringing him to the point of drowning, over and over, or forcing a prisoner – stripped naked and covered in his own excrement – to stand with his hands shackled to the ceiling for days, until his legs swell to twice their normal size, may not have constituted torture in memos prepared by government lawyers, but such practices are surely cruel, inhuman, and degrading.

Barack Obama’s first act as America’s president was to ban torture immediately. The question now is how to deal with the past, and specifically with the fact that these acts were not just condoned, but ordered by the highest US officials.