In April of 2004, the world first learned that American soldiers in Iraq had abused detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. Images first revealed on CBS and in The New Yorker showed prisoners standing hooded on a box with wires attached to their hands and genitals; piles of naked prisoners stacked into a pyramid; and detainees forced to simulate sexual acts upon one another, often with grinning GIs on hand to point and offer a jaunty thumbs up.
The reaction to the Abu Ghraib scandal was swift and bipartisan. Within days, President George W. Bush had offered a public apology for "the terrible and horrible acts," and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, took "full responsibility" for the scandal, promising that the offenders would be brought to justice, because the victims "are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't do that." With the exception of a handful of outliers—Rush Limbaugh said the abuse was "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation," and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., claimed to be "more outraged by the outrage than … by the treatment"—Americans reacted with almost universal surprise and revulsion.
In April of 2009, President Barack Obama released four government memos, written in 2002 and 2005, laying out legal justifications for prisoner abuse far more shocking than anything we had seen in the images from Abu Ghraib. Among other things, U.S. prisoners could be thrown into walls, water-boarded, shackled to the ceiling for hours, deprived of sleep for up to 11 days, and locked in coffinlike boxes. But the reaction could not have been more different. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey quickly penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journalcondemning the release of the memos and defending the interrogation techniques. Former Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that the Obama administration now needs to "put out the memos that showed the success of the effort." Conservative pundits casually likened water-boarding to prep school initiation and claimed that anyone who opposes prisoner abuse must simply hate America. The many ordinary Americans who want to see torture allegations investigated—evidently a majority of them, in fact—have been dismissed by these same pundits as members of a bloodthirsty "hard left." The president himself asks us all to move on. And if we're moving on, it can't have been all that bad.
In some ways, it's easy to account for the differences between the response to Abu Ghraib in 2004 and the reaction to the torture memos this month: The torture at Abu Ghraib was documented in pictures, rather than mere words, making it harder to play down or parse out. The OLC's torture memos—written in dispassionate legalese with much legal citation—are easier to defend than the brutal images of what they permitted (and that's why the CIA saw fit to destroy its interrogation tapes). The abuses at Abu Ghraib were of low-level prisoners, whereas the torture memos purport to target "ticking time bombs": high-level terrorists with critical information about imminent strikes that continue to exist mainly in thought experiments and the mind of Dick Cheney.
But there's one other fact that accounts for the horror differential between the torture memos and Abu Ghraib, and that's the fact of Abu Ghraib. Because, as I have suggested before, after Abu Ghraib, America seems to have lost its capacity to be truly shocked by anything America might do. As chilling and brutal as the images were at the time, they have, in the years between, lost much of their power to repel us. They have become—abetted by endless viewings of Jack Bauer on 24and an interminable national debate about torture—emblems of what America is at least willing to consider doing. They are no longer postcards from the unthinkable. They are what we have become.
When we first saw those now-iconic photos from Abu Ghraib, most of us still had no notion that our government would degrade and terrorize prisoners. We had no inkling at that time that—in violation of domestic and international law—the U.S. government had already water-boarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in one month in 2003. Discovery of the sexual humiliation and stress positions used at Abu Ghraib represented a brief and terrible loss of innocence for Americans. But maybe you can lose your innocence only once.
After Abu Ghraib, the idea that prisoners could be stripped naked and humiliated, or terrorized by dogs, or piled up like Tinkertoys, was not just in the backs of our minds but also back on the table. Less than two years after we learned of the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, Congress had passed legislation legalizing many of the "alternative interrogation tactics"—the stress positions and sexual humiliations—that had so offended us months before. Prisoner abuse that flattened us in 2004 was normalized to the point that it was open to political debate only a year later. And once you have been desensitized to hoodings and nudity, is a little simulated drowning or being bounced off a wall really all that much worse?
The MPs caught abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib later claimed that they did so because they were merely following orders from superiors, orders to "soften up" the detainees who would then be more amenable to interrogation. I keep wondering whether they inadvertently softened up the rest of us as well. We have become so casual about torture that we now openly debate its efficacy—something nobody would have dared do in the first days after Abu Ghraib. The fight playing out between the left and the right now isn't "Did we water-board?" We already knew we did. It is barely even "Was it legal?" Virtually nobody seriously argues that it was. The fight we are having in America now is "Did it work?" And if we manage to persuade ourselves that torture does work, whether it's legal or even moral will no longer matter. And such tactics will never be able to horrify us again.
A version of this story appears in this week's Newsweek.