Why Sarah Palin's Sacrilegious Torture Nostalgia Matters

The publicity hound's remarks suggest that there is still a significant conservative pro-torture constituency, and that the taboo against torture has not yet recovered.

Over the weekend, Sarah Palin, who Republicans tried to put a heartbeat away from the White House, told a crowd of NRA supporters, "They are not right policies that poke our allies in the eye, coddle adversaries, instead of putting the fear of God in our enemies. Come on. Enemies who would utterly annihilate America! They who obviously have information on plots to carry out jihad. Oh, but you can't offend them. You can't make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists." 

The crowd cheered. 

I can't help but be amused that the erstwhile half-term governor, Fox News commentator, and reality-TV star wants to put "the fear of God" into religious zealots who believe suicide attacks will earn their way into paradise. And I sympathize with the Christians who object to Palin's sacrilegious invocation of baptism. "Not only is this woman, putatively a Christian, praising torture," Rod Dreher complains, "but she is comparing it to a holy sacrament of the Christian faith."

Still, I wouldn't have subjected readers to this especially inane nostalgia for Bush-era war crimes if not for what it could portend. Palin is a pandering publicity hound. She has a keen sense of what sorts of red meat the GOP base will eat up. For its part, the audience seemed receptive.

So one wonders: If the wrong Republican is elected, or if there is another major terrorist attack, will the United States once again force water into the lungs of captive humans (no ticking time bombs necessary) when they stand accused of terrorism? President Obama has certainly made future torture more likely by ending the practice by executive order rather than legislation, and by refusing to prosecute Bush Administration officials for torture, despite a legal obligation to do so. 

Hopefully, future presidents will rule out torture, regardless of their political party. In that case, Palin's barbaric comments won't be a portent of anything. Her speech will merely provide one more illustration of how Bush Administration torturers and their partisans defenders undermined a civilizational taboo. Before they came along, Americans thought of torture as immoral. Now a crowd of NRA conservatives regard "baptism by waterboarding" as an applause line.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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