Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This is waterboarding

In the wake of the bin Laden killing, here's been a lot of talk about whether or not waterboarding is or is not torture, and whether torture is acceptable.  My position on the issue is extremely straightforward.  Take this picture for example:

This is a waterboard.  It is on permanent display in the place where it was used, Security Prison 21 (better known as S-21), by one of the most brutal regimes in the history of human civilization, the Khmer Rouge.  Prior to that, the technique was most prominently used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Gestapo, and the Japanese military police during World War II, including on American POWs.  Personally, those aren't the sort of groups I would want to be associated with.

One of many reasons I have so much respect for Christopher Hitchens is his willingness to actually undergo waterboarding in order to make his own conclusions and write about the experience for Vanity Fair.  Here's the video:

Money quote from Hitchens' 2008 article:
Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
But don't just take the opinion of an English-American polemicist for it. Here's a piece from Forbes where a senior US interrogator in Afghanistan (whose identity must be concealed for incredibly obvious reasons) outright says that torture puts our troops in danger, in addition to being ineffective. A large section of the article is worth quoting verbatim:
The man, who can’t be named for security reasons, has nearly two decades of experience as a military interrogator and Human Intelligence (HUMINT) specialist. He interrogated suspected high-value targets at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where he is currently stationed.
“Listen,” he said, “waterboarding and/or other coercive techniques did nothing to contribute to our attempts to track down UBL (Usama bin Laden). What did succeed was weeks, months and years of diligent, laborious, and dedicated work – all within the bounds of legal and ethical boundaries….No torture, no waterboarding, no coercion – nothing inhumane – is considered a useful tool in our work.”

On the subject of blowback, he continued:
I cannot even count the amount of times that I personally have come face to face with detainees, who told me they were primarily motivated to do what they did, because of hearing that we committed torture. Even the rumor of torture is enough to convince an army of uneducated and illiterate, yet religiously motivated young boys to strap bombs to their chests and blow themselves up while killing whoever happens to be around – police, soldiers, civilians, women, or children. Torture committed by Americans in the past continues to kill Americans today.
The recent talk justifying waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” he added, can leave an indelible mark on intelligence personnel who are just entering the profession.

“If right-wing news outlets and partisan pundits or politicians are allowed to continue to spread their completely bogus claims that torture is effective,” he said, “then we will have corrupted the beliefs of yet another generation of new intelligence recruits….It takes months and years of ‘intervention’ to get the next generation back on the track of quality work, specialization, and intelligence dominance – not quick and easy fixes. This is not an hour-long TV show.”

Hard work, not torture, is what got the job done. Some people, drowning (I use the term advisedly) in Jack Bauer fantasies and forgetting the history of waterboarding, would rather keep on associating our country with the worst moments in humanity, inspiring even more people in the Middle East to rise against us. It's almost as if the war against terror (how can you fight a war against a tactic?) is designed to be self-sustaining. The harder we fight, the stronger the enemy gets. And so it goes.

But if you want a bit more evidence as to why waterboarding shouldn't be used, consider 18 USC 2340 and 2340A. First, the definitions, as spelled out in 18 USC 2340:
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality;
If making someone believe they are about to drown, which is the entire point of waterboarding, does not qualify as a "threat of imminent death," then I question what would fulfill that definition. And 18 USC 2340A lays out a very severe penalty for torture. To wit:
(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
Other statutes cover torture within the boundaries of the US itself, in case you're wondering. Moreover, there have been recorded instances of death at Guantanamo Bay, a location specifically chosen because it was believed it was sufficiently outside the US to avoid most laws, but it can be clearly seen that 2340A still applies. Meaning that those who torture someone to death at Gitmo can, under federal law, be put to death themselves.

I'm not advocating for locking up people who work at Gitmo. But I am saying the people who advocate for torture in general and waterboarding in particular are wrong on a historical, moral, strategic, and legal level. And it doesn't work. Even our interrogators say so. If we don't listen to the people who have actually practiced this technique themselves (and had it practiced upon them voluntarily), then the only people we're listening to are the producers of 24.