'Therefore, We Are All The Bag Man'

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Dahlia Lithwick, doing work:


In an America in which the former president can boast on television that he approved the water-boarding of U.S. prisoners, it can hardly be a shock that following a lengthy investigation, no criminal charges will be filed against those who destroyed the evidence of CIA abuse of prisoners Abu Zubaydah and Abd a-Rahim al-Nashiri. We keep waiting breathlessly for someone, somewhere, to have a day of reckoning over the prisoners we tortured in the wake of 9/11, without recognizing that there is no bag man to be found and that therefore we are all the bag man.

President Barack Obama decided long ago that he would "turn the page" on prisoner abuse and other illegality connected to the Bush administration's war on terror. What he didn't seem to understand, what he still seems not to appreciate, is that what was on that page would bleed through onto the next page and the page after that. There's no getting past torture. There is only getting comfortable with it. The U.S. flirtation with torture is not locked in the past or in the black sites or prisons at which it occurred. Now more than ever, it's feted on network television and held in reserve for the next president who persuades himself that it's not illegal after all....

Eric Holder and Barack Obama have taken pains to tell the American people that water-boarding is illegal torture. So what? That's just their opinion. President Bush disagrees. The persistent failure to hold anyone accountable at any level for years of state-sanctioned abuse speaks louder than their words. It has taken this issue from a legal question to a matter of personal taste. What we choose to define as torture is now just another policy disagreement, like extending the Bush tax cuts or picking a caterer.

Or teaching intelligent design. Or doing something about global warming. The truth becomes what we want it to be.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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