The shameful spectacle of war criminal Dick Cheney doing the media circuit, treated like an elder statesman as he promotes his soon-to-be-released memoir, has reignited debate as to whether or not waterboarding is torture. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation, but here we are, so for the gazillionth– and hopefully last–time, here’s why there is absolutely no doubt that the controversial interrogation technique is indeed torture.
First of all, let me just say that no less a conservative icon than Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer says it is, calling the practice “a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique.” Mind you, Krauthammer wasn’t rejecting waterboarding; the name of his article I just cited was “We Must All Be Prepared to Torture.” But the fact that an über-conservative would readily admit that the practice is unequivocally torture is nevertheless very telling. And Krauthammer isn’t the only conservative who believes this, as you’ll soon see.
Let’s examine exactly what waterboarding is. When you read about the technique, it’s usually described as “simulated drowning.” In reality, it is actual drowning that, if “done properly,” is interrupted before the ordeal kills the victim. A more accurate description would be “simulated death by drowning.” Evan Wallach described it like this in The Washington Post:
The victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic, breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and, eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one experiences after being punched in the gut. The main difference is that the drowning process is halted… It can cause severe psychological trauma, such as panic attacks, for years.
Sure, nobody in U.S. custody has died (that we know of) while being waterboarded. But fear of drowning strikes terror in the soul of almost every human being on the planet. Couple that with the very real drowning effects of waterboarding and you’ve got yourself one hell of a torture technique.
Conservative writer Christopher Hitchens wanted to see what all the waterboarding fuss was about. He decided to let some hardened special-ops veterans waterboard him. They made him sign a disclaimer that should have hinted at what was to come. It read, in part:
‘Waterboarding’ is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death.
Here’s how Hitchens described what happened to him:
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose… I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted… If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
Conservative Chicago “shock jock” Erich Mancow didn’t think waterboarding was a big deal so he had himself waterboarded during his live radio show. Lasting only six or seven seconds (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had impressed his torturers by withstanding up to two minutes of waterboarding at a time), Mancow flailed around in agony on the table he was tied to. “I don’t want to say this,” (but he did), “Absolutely torture. It is way worse than I thought it would be.” The radio host said it reminded him of a childhood near-drowning incident.
Fact is, waterboarding has been a popular torture for many centuries. The Spanish Inquisitors used it. So did the Nazis. The Americans used it on prisoners during the Philippine insurrection a century ago and it was, in turn, used against American P.O.W.s by the Japanese in World War II. The French used it in Algeria.
More recently, the Khmer Rouge, who killed 2,000,000 Cambodians during their reign of terror, as well as the current Burmese military junta have employed waterboarding in their twisted arsenals.
It’s been prosecuted as a war crime throughout the ages and has been banned in most European countries since the early 1800s.
After World War II Japanese soldiers were tried and convicted for using it against our troops. Lieutenant Chase J. Nielsen, a captured American pilot, was waterboarded by his Japanese captors. “I felt more or less like I was drowning,” he recalled. “Just gasping between life and death.”
Americans have been severely punished for the crime of waterboarding as well. I mentioned the Philippines, where U.S. soldiers were court-martialed for using it while interrogating insurgents. In a much later Asian war an American G.I. was kicked out of the Army for participating in the waterboarding of a North Vietnamese prisoner. Later still, when a Texas sheriff and some of his deputies used it to force confessions– sometimes false ones– from prisoners, a Texan jury (not exactly your commie pinko types) found the officers guilty and sentenced the sheriff to 10 years behind bars.
I think I’ve made my point. But just in case,I’ll quote a few high-ranking Bush administration officials. Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security said: “I believe, unlike others in the administration, that waterboarding was, is, and always will be– torture… There’s no doubt in my mind– under any set of rules– waterboarding is torture.”
Richard Armitage, the tough, barrel-chested former Deputy Secretary of State, declared: “Let there be no mistake: waterboarding is torture– and it should never be used by the United States.”
Even Mike McConnell, Bush’s Director of National Intelligence, admitted that it was indeed torture. “Waterboarding would be excruciating,” he said. “Oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.” McConnell has an explanation why some people, especially government officials, would hesitate to admit this. The former national security chief explained: “If it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.”
But there could be a huge penalty to be paid by American troops for not calling it torture. “The White House has now declared that waterboarding is not torture,” said Senator Chris Dodd (Democrat- Connecticut), “What is to stop other regimes from ‘not torturing’ our soldiers in the same way?”
“Under what circumstances,” queried congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA), “would it ever be permissible… for a foreign nation to interrogate a U.S. citizen by strapping [them] to a board and suffocating him or her with water with the intent to create the fear of death?”
The answer, of course, is never. So why, then, was it okay for the United States to do it to others? Imagine for a moment that insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan were to waterboard captured Americans so that they could learn about U.S. plans to attack them. How do you think we would react? Why, then, is it torture when ‘they’ do it to ‘us,’ but not when it’s the other way around?
The Bush administration had no time for philosophical questions of propriety. Back in those days the majority of high-level administration figures supported waterboarding, torture or not. Vice President Dick Cheney said it was a “good thing” the U.S. waterboarded top terror suspects. When asked if he would make the same decisions again, Bush’s ‘number two’ emphatically proclaimed “You’re damn right I would!” Cheney also says, however, that he would “object” if, say, Iranians waterboarded an American citizen.
Cheney also agreed with North Dakota radio personality Scott Hennen’s infamous assertion that waterboarding was a mere “dunk in the water” and that the debate over whether or not it should be used was “a little silly.”
This bothered some people who knew that torture was no silly matter. One of them was John McCain, currently a Republican Senator from Arizona. But in 1968, 31-year old McCain was a Navy fighter pilot on a bombing run over North Vietnam. He was shot down but he managed to eject from his doomed A-4 fighter jet, breaking both of his arms and one of his knees in the fall. He was viciously assaulted as he was captured; attacking North Vietnamese broke his shoulder and stabbed him in the ankle and groin with a bayonet. Lieutenant Commander McCain was imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison, badly beaten and left to die. He was so completely broken that he could do nothing but lay in his own vomit and excrement as he waited on death’s doorstep for the end. The young pilot spent years in solitary confinement. His weight dropped to around a hundred pounds. Torture was his constant companion–a broken rib or three here, some broken teeth there, another broken arm later on– and his despair grew so overwhelming that he repeatedly tried to kill himself. This was John McCain’s life for five and a half years.
As you might expect, McCain has been an outspoken critic of waterboarding. “Anyone who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure,” he asserted. “It is a horrible torture technique… and should never be condoned in the U.S.. We are a better nation than that.”
Yes, we are. Or at least we ought to be. Under Obama, torture, while still occurring, is not nearly as widespread as it was under Bush. Waterboarding has been mercifully relegated to the scrap heap of history. But the damage to America’s reputation and standing in the world has been done. And the fact that we’re still debating whether or not waterboarding is torture, something that is beyond debate, does not help our tortured image one bit.