Remember when Fox News contributor Sarah Palin joked about torture?
Last spring, Palin appeared before an NRA convention crowd and laughed about how liberals supposedly coddle America's mortal adversaries. "Oh, but you can't offend them, can't make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen," said Palin. "Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists," The NRA audience roared with approval, but even some conservative commentators who saw the tape of Palin's wisecrack took offense, upset that she had linked bodily torture with a Christian sacrament. ("It's disgusting.")
Palin, of course, hardly stands alone among conservative media commentators who have spent years not only downplaying the grievous practice of torture adopted by the Bush administration, but who have routinely made light of the cruel tactic previously banned by the United States.
"If you look at what we are calling torture, you have to laugh," Rush Limbaugh once announced, and claimed "if somebody can be water-tortured six times a day, then it isn't torture." At the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, Limbaugh routinely mocked the claims of prisoner abuse, which were confirmed by horrific photographs: "Here we have these pictures of homoeroticism that look like standard good old American pornography, the Britney Spears or Madonna concerts or whatever." Limbaugh dismissed the prison torture as a "fraternity prank," suggesting "Maybe the people who executed this pulled off a brilliant maneuver. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got physically injured."
Meanwhile, Fox News' Eric Bolling once joked that the types of interrogation techniques being described in the press ("loud music, sleep deprivation, barking dogs"), sounded like "a typical weekend at my house with my twelve-year old son."
Then-Fox News host Glenn Beck greeted 2009 news of CIA interrogation revelations with fake sobs, after noting that "[c]ritics of the Bush-approved [interrogation] methods have called them torture." And that same year, Sean Hannity laughed on the air while agreeing to be waterboarded to raise money for charity. (Two thousand days later, Hannity still hasn't done it.)
That longstanding conservative attempt to make light of torture (who does that?) is now even harder to justify in light of the disturbing details contained in the new Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's five-years-in-the-making report on the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and interrogation program. (The report is told mostly via internal CIA communications.)
Aside from what the report claimed were widespread efforts by the CIA to cover-up its practice from Congressional oversight and even from the rest of the Bush administration, and that the information extracted through torture was at times fabricated and never considered good enough to thwart an imminent terror plot or help apprehend sought-after terrorists, the key take-away remains the level of brutality inflicted as part of a systemic U.S. policy.
The report appears to obliterate claims routinely made by the Bush administration that controversial methods of "enhanced" interrogation used by the CIA was both humane and legal.
According to the report, some detainees were deprived sleep for up to a week, told they'd soon be killed in custody, and subjected to bouts of "rectal feeding" and "rectal hydration" as a form of behavior control. They were waterboarded to the point of "near drownings" and some were housed in a "dungeon"-like black site in Afghanistan, where prisoners "literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled." The dungeon was described as being completely dark, where detainees were "constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste." One detainee, "had been held partially nude and chained to the floor died," reportedly died from hypothermia.
The torture procedures were so disturbing that "some C.I.A. officers were "to the point of tears and choking up," and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued," according to the New York Times.
The implications of the report are profound. "I don't think it's hype to say that there has never been a day like this in American history," said legal analyst Jeffery Toobin on CNN last night. "We didn't treat the Nazis like this. We didn't' treat the Vietcong like this. This is something that is without precedent in American history."
Added a Guardian editorial, "It is one of the darkest episodes in the history of a nation that sees itself, not unreasonably in many respects and in some eras, as a beacon to the world."
For now, it appears the right-wing media jokes about torture have subsided. Instead, commentators have shifted to insisting the practice was effective and crucial to the War on Terror. (Or maybe that it wasn't really torture at all.) But the nearly decade-long campaign to laugh off torture and treat the brutal practice as a running joke helps highlight how truly radical the conservative media in America have become.