There was a scarcely noted but classic moment in the Senate hearings on the nomination of John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism “tsar,” to become the next CIA director. When Senator Carl Levin pressed him repeatedly on whether waterboarding was torture, he ended his reply this way: “I have a personal opinion that waterboarding is reprehensible and should not be done. And again, I am not a lawyer, senator, and I can't address that question.”
How modern, how twenty-first-century American! How we’ve evolved since the dark days of Medieval Europe when waterboarding fell into a category known to all as “the water torture”! Brennan even cited Attorney General Eric Holder as one lawyer who had described waterboarding as “torture,” but he himself begged off. According to the man who was deputy executive director of the CIA and director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center in the years of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and knew much about them, the only people equipped to recognize torture definitively as “torture” are lawyers. This might be more worrisome, if we weren’t a “nation of lawyers” (though it also means that plummeting law school application rates could, in the future, create a torture-definition crisis).