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Dan Gardner is an Ottawa-based journalist and author.

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As a journalist investigating torture more than a decade ago, I expected to hear horrifying stories. But the worst moment did not involve words.

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I was in Uzbekistan, speaking to a mother whose son had died in custody. The police had sent her the son's personal effects, including his clothes. She showed me the shirt and pants. They were covered in enormous red-brown blotches – the colour bloodstains turn after a quick wash. Then she held up her son's underwear. It was almost entirely red-brown.

This was clear evidence of savage brutality and yet, rather than burn it, the police had handed it to their victim's grieving mother. For human-rights researchers, that behaviour is itself important evidence: It showed that the police felt they could inflict torture without the slightest risk of being investigated and punished.

Sadly, this insight is important for understanding more than torture in obscure countries. It actually underlines what is at stake in this year's race for the American presidency.

Formally, torture is banned everywhere, under all circumstances, but in reality the extent to which torture is truly shunned varies. At one extreme are countries such as Uzbekistan, which can scarcely be bothered to pretend. At the other extreme is civilization, where torture is explicitly condemned, vigorously investigated and prosecuted if it happens. A wide spectrum lies in-between. In Egypt, for example, torture is commonplace but police may destroy evidence or avoid methods that leave telltale bruises and scars because they know impunity isn't total.

Countries can and do change position on the spectrum. When Turkey made serious efforts to stamp out endemic torture in the 1990s, police became more cautious when deciding when and how – or if – they would brutalize prisoners.

The fight against torture requires tenacity. Progress is slow and incremental, a struggle measured in inches.

So is regress. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and expressed his desire to see a worldwide end to "this abhorrent practice."

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Under president George W. Bush, the United States condemned torture and insisted it did not, and would not, make use of it. In reality, the administration inflicted "waterboarding" and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" on terrorism suspects. When this was revealed, the administration denied these techniques qualified as torture. Jurists scoffed, noting, among much other evidence, that after the Second World War the U.S. government prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American PoWs.

The Obama administration refused to investigate and prosecute, as the Convention Against Torture requires. But it did agree waterboarding and the other techniques are torture and issued an executive order making it absolutely clear they are forbidden.

The Democratic presidential hopefuls both support this policy. But the Republicans have taken a dark turn.

Ted Cruz condemns torture, but insists waterboarding does not qualify. However, he promises to restrict the use of waterboarding to rare, extreme circumstances. Marco Rubio has coyly said prisoners shouldn't know what limits interrogators will have to observe, and he promises to send prisoners to Guantanamo – where all they know will be extracted from them, using undisclosed techniques.

Donald Trump admits waterboarding is torture, but he has enthusiastically endorsed it – and promised to do "a hell of a lot worse." To the argument that torture does not work, Mr. Trump has said that even if that were true, he would still order it because "they deserve it." Later, his campaign acknowledged that "the United States is bound by laws and treaties" and said Mr. Trump would not violate these. But then Mr. Trump said he would change the laws and treaties. What a President Trump would actually say and do is now anyone's guess.

These differences matter. At the highest level, the policies endorsed by presidents determine how international terrorism suspects are treated. But beyond that, they send signals to the wider machinery of government, and law enforcement on the ground, about what is and is not beyond the pale, and what they can expect if they cross lines. They help shape institutional cultures and, ultimately, what is done to prisoners in cells.

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The United States will likely remain near the civilized end of the spectrum under a Democratic administration. Under the Republicans, expect it to slide some distance – inches or feet – in the direction of Egypt and Uzbekistan.

It is horrible to contemplate but somehow, in 2016, torture will be on the ballot in November.

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