The coward wretch whose hand and heart
Can bear to torture aught below,
Is ever first to quail and start
From the slightest pain or equal foe.- Bertrand Russell
The torture debate in America got real three weeks ago.
Oh, the debate has been around for years now, of course, ever since the photos of what happened in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light. Men covered in feces, bent double and lashed to bedframes, their faith humiliated by the menstrual blood smeared on their faces, their bodies savaged by dogs, and worse, reports of the rape of women and children.
Yes, the torture debate has been around for a while now, recently revisited by President Obama, who condemned and discontinued the practice, and by enablers of torture like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, who have labored mightily to defend it. It's been quite the hot topic among the chattering classes of American political discourse, a dialogue in three parts: one group condemning the practice, another group championing it, and a third group - the media professionals - taking no position and trying not to offend anyone, so they can get the big names back on the set for the Sunday shows.
Three weeks ago, however, the whole nature of the torture debate changed irrevocably when an American soldier from Idaho named Bowe Bergdahl somehow fell into the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have him now, and God help him, because it was the United States government under the administration of George W. Bush that set the terms for how anyone captured can and should be treated.
If the Taliban decide Bergdahl has information they want, they can waterboard him until he talks. They can compress his body and cover him with insects, they can rob him of sleep and deny him food, they can beat him and slather his body with his own waste, they can shove sticks into his rectum, they can rape him, and they can murder him. They can hand him over to representatives of another government and have him whisked away to some far-flung dungeon where "enhanced interrogation" has an even darker and more savage definition. For sure, they can deny him due process of any kind and never, ever, ever, ever let him go home again.
They could do this whether or not the United States had engaged in similar practices, but because we did these things, they can do these things and still claim the moral high ground. Why not? It was the United States government under the administration of George W. Bush who plowed that high ground into the gutter. Everyone stands the same height when they're face-down in the sewer.
One thing the Taliban apparently cannot do, however, is videotape their prisoner. Several days ago, a tape of Bergdahl, with his head shaved, pleading to be sent home to his parents, was released by his captors. "I am scared," said Bergdahl in the video. "I'm scared I won't be able to go home. It is very unnerving to be a prisoner. I have my girlfriend who is hoping to marry. I have my grandma and grandpas. I have a very, very good family that I love back home in America. And I miss them every day that I'm gone. I miss them and I'm afraid that I might never see them again and that I'll never be able to tell them that I love them again. I'll never be able to hug them."
The US government reacted swiftly to the video of Bergdahl. "We condemn the use of this video and the public humiliation of prisoners," said US military spokesman Col. Greg Julian. "It is against international law. We are doing everything we can to return this soldier to safety."
How hard it must have been for the US military to release a statement like that without feeling sick at heart and scared to death. The terrible irony and hypocrisy of the statement they released about the Bergdahl video must have been searing; we have set the table in such a way that torture is a positive action that saves lives, but videotapes are right out? No, that doesn't scan, and we know it, and the Taliban know it, and dollars to donuts Bergdahl knows it, too. Is he waiting in terror for the torture to begin? Has it already started?
The torture debate in America got real three weeks ago, and every American so-called Christian who has defended the practice can appreciate the lesson: we reap what we sow.
Pray Bowe Bergdahl doesn't reap it for us.