Maybe I'm just a slow learner (keep your thoughts to yourself please) but for a long time I didn't know what the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees" meant. I attribute it to the archaic use of "for" to mean "because of", as in "for want of a nail the shoe was lost." Even after I figured that out I didn't see what was so great about it; there was no easy frame of reference for missing the big picture because of focusing on minutia. Maybe "being penny wise and pound foolish" is a folk wisdom cousin but it didn't get me any closer. It took the Rodney King police trial to do make me understand it.
I remember being at a friend's house when I first saw the tape and I literally couldn't believe my eyes. It illustrated what was happening in that area (and maybe to a certain degree in most urban areas) more than any number of dry statistics. My reaction was "they are mercilessly beating that man, and calling it 'brutality' is an understatement." I suspect most people - even those largely sympathetic to the officers - would admit in their heart of hearts that yes, that's a bit over the top. Going into the trial the defendants' lawyers must have known the videotape spoke volumes and had to be neutralized. I wouldn't have had the first clue how to do that, and the fact that they did is a tribute to their competence.
They figured out that instead of trying to bury it they could just cut it up into dozens of pieces right before the jury. The officers were shown a couple seconds of the tape, then it was stopped. They were asked, what were you thinking then? Why did you do that? What was the intent behind that hit? Roll the tape a couple more seconds. How about that one? Why didn't you just handcuff him right there? It went on and on and on. The tape was drawn out and divided into discrete moments, each with its own internal logic. It also prevented the accumulated violence from being apparent. At any moment the jury might just see one or two hits, which by itself came across as subduing a grown man resisting arrest. It was an absolutely brilliant courtroom strategy, and while the post-verdict riots forever cast it as being all about race and class I believe the play/pause/explain strategy was instrumental in the result.
The reason I revisit this is because our country is in the process of accepting a comforting lie presented in the same way. The stark truth is that we torture. We engage in behavior that is explicitly against international treaties we signed decades ago and abided by. It is explicitly illegal. Those who used the very same practices against us in World War II were successfully prosecuted for war crimes. It was done during the Inquisition. It is repudiated by our allies and practiced by those we consider lawless. How could such a monstrous thing happen? Play/pause/explain.
When Mike McConnell says "You can do waterboarding lots of different ways...I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning" he is asking us to look at the trees and not the forest. We know waterboarding is torture and we desperately want to believe that our leaders haven't directed it. We approach our leaders predisposed to believe anything that will put the conscience at ease - we want to believe we're the good guys. Therefore we are entirely willing to let our leaders play, pause and explain. (Play) waterboarding is really bad (pause) but it can be done lots of different ways and probably some of them aren't torture and you can bet your bottom dollar that THOSE are the varieties of it we use. He invites us to mentally pause the tape over and over again while he explains the non-torturous nature of each drop of water.
Unfortunately the truth is completely at odds with that picture. We know how the tape looks when we run it uninterrupted from start to finish. We know it explains itself and its face is that of unvarnished evil. We know as we are invited to examine a piece of bark in microscopic detail that we are still in the forest. What will be our excuse?