In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to capture the sheer horror of someone like Adolf Eichmann, who carried out his executions of the Jews in the same way that another government functionary would file tax forms, distribute zoning permits, or even hand out railroad tickets, accepting the validity and normality of every dictate of the state.
This is precisely the phrase that came to my mind while listening to last week's two-part NPRinterview of John Rizzo, who is flogging a book based on his experience as the interim general counsel for the CIA during the torture years. (No, not linking to the book here. If you want to pay him for approving of torture you can find it yourself.)
Rizzo is clearly not a fanatic, but the interview makes clear that he had no difficulty accepting the premise that the government was essentially permitted to do whatever it wanted to extract information from those it held captive.
Rizzo even clings to the tired line that waterboarding isn't torture.
I'm a lawyer, and torture is legally defined in U.S. law. If I had concluded — or, more importantly, if the Justice Department had concluded — that these techniques constitute torture, we would never have done them. So I can't say they were torture. I didn't concede it was torture then, and I don't concede that it's torture now.
As used in this chapter—
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
. . .
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality . . .
Guess what: this is exactly what waterboarding is. It isn't simulated drowning, or giving the victim the impression that he is drowning. No, it is subjecting him to drowning, only to rescue him before he succumbs. It absolutely carries with it the threat of imminent death, the suggestion that if he does not cooperate the torturer will eventually decide not to stop pouring the water over him but continue until he can no longer breathe.
I don't expect Rizzo to ever face ethical or disciplinary charges for presiding over torture by the CIA, but if he does I am pretty sure I know what his defense will be.
“I was only following orders.”