As the Senate report on CIA interrogations courses through the national media this week, the once-popular notion that the Bush administration never really tortured anyone, or engaged only in "torture-lite," is no longer a tenable position. Still, the most expansive look to date at post-9/11 interrogation policy has generated nothing like universal outrage or condemnation. For every American who believes that those who participated in waterboarding, "rectal rehydration," and other depraved interrogation tactics ought to be prosecuted (per U.S. treaty obligations), many more would rather stop short of censure and move on. And that isn't just because Republicans have mischaracterized the report as partisan.
The impulse to forgive and forget unlawful torture is inseparable from the belief held by many that Bush administration officials, CIA interrogators, and private contractors acted in good faith to protect America and shouldn't be punished for doing so. If that were true, legal accountability for torturers would still be necessary to preserve a core civilizational taboo (as bygone Americans understood when joining a treaty that banned torture in literally all circumstances).
But the conceit that the CIA engaged in a relatively forgivable form of torture is wrong (even assuming a logic where there's such a thing as forgivable torture). The Senate report makes the untruth of this conceit abundantly clear, yet the conceit survives.