Dahlia Lithwick takes up the issue of the changing definition of, and public acceptance of, torture. Her argument tracks some of the same ideas that came up in our discussion on Wednesday and places revelations like the Abu Ghraib photos in the context of the shifting public debate over torture.
A few years ago I wrote about the connection between the torture photos taken at Abu Ghraib and the congressional debate over detainee treatment rules. I argued that the leaked photos, along with memos from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that redefined torture in appalling new ways, were not in fact a public relations blow to the Bush administration, but a sort of foot in the door for looser torture standards—a way to begin desensitizing the American people to the kinds of abuse that had been going on in secret. Two years after the images surfaced, Congress enacted a law essentially permitting the acts depicted. And just as those images paved the way to our broader torture policy, the CIA torture tapes now stand to do the same thing for water-boarding in particular.
Does Lithwick’s argument support Scarry’s concern that torture warrants would legitimate torture more broadly and make it more common, or does this argument suggest that Dershowitz is right and warrants are needed in order to set boundaries on the use of torture? Does the fact that we are having a class discussion about torture support Lithwick’s account of change in the public understanding and acceptance of torture?