But I digress. TNC is asking if torture is new, or if it is only new that we have a President who endorsed it. The best answer so far:
The crux is that America, in her founding documents and institutions, and in her public proclamations and claimed mores, has never done anything but condemn torture. Until now.
Prior to now, torture may have happened, but everyone involved would have the decency to try to deny that what happened was torture. If the evidence could not be denied, and the torturers were in positins of authority, professionals doing their duty would be expected to bring prosecutions or court-martials. Even the C.I.A. would try to deny or blame a "bad apple" in public, while he files would fall into a black hole and the Agency would disavow any knowledge of the individuals in question (handy, that).
There was, basically, a willful mythology about American virtue (the construction of which I will get into a little bit), but the point of the mythology was to hold people accountable to the ideal, because enforcing that ideal served our interests: powerful European states would treat us and ours better if we treated them well. Since we weren't generally in formally-declared wars with Natives, the laws of war weren't invoked as much, but every conflict the United States had with Britain and France and the Confederacy and Spain and Germany and Italy and Russia served our interests to legally assert that there were rules to prisoner conduct, and to explicitly adopt the higher moral ground. It served our troops, and supported our PR side of the conflict. The Union scored enormous support when Confederates massacred black troop captives - there was a powerful selfish interest to doing the right thing.
Where we have entered new historical territory isn't that Americans torturing people is new, or even the President secretly authorizing individual acts of torture is new. It is that the President and the Vice-President don't deny ordering activities that every international agent we have created and every relevant law we have passed defines as torture. They brag about it. And they do not expect to be held accountable to the rule of law for that brazen admission.
That is new. Historic. Horrifying - the State is now admitting, as the State, to the acceptability of the State officially torturing people for the common good.