If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The advent of sound recording deep-sixed this age-old thought experiment and offered a definitive answer: Yes!
I’ve got another one for you, though: if you water-torture someone at a secure military compound and no one is around to see it, is it a war crime?
Well, what if someone does see it? And what if you admit to it — and to a criminal investigator, no less? And what if you add that you also used electrical torture, too? Is that, in fact, a war crime?
More cut and dried, right?
And what if criminal investigators identified 28 other members of your military unit as having beaten prisoners, tortured them with electric shocks, and water-boarded them? And what if 15 of them actually admitted to those acts? Is that, I ask you, a war crime?
Years ago, when I investigated the particular set of crimes mentioned above that were carried out by U.S. military intelligence personnel in Vietnam, I found that only three of the soldiers involved were even punished. And by punished, I mean that the three received fines or reductions in rank. None served any prison time.
One of the admitted torturers I spoke with was still unrepentant. He explained to me that, were he placed in the same situation again, he would do exactly the same things. And why wouldn’t he? You don’t find Americans in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC). But if the Trump administration has its way, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reports so strikingly today, the ICC’s judges and prosecutors might be the ones who find themselves charged and — though it’s a stretch of the imagination — behind bars. And given what we know about the U.S. prison system, that might also mean finding themselves at risk of torture.
“We were… nothing short of criminals in the eyes of everyone except our parents and close friends,” the admitted torturer told me, while complaining about the postwar treatment of Vietnam veterans. But he was never charged, let alone tried or convicted for the torture he admitted to meting out. Will ICC officials one day be convicted in American courts of meting out justice? For the moment, the jury is still out.