Thursday, November 1

Waterboarding is torture

I have to confess, I didn't know the details of waterboarding (I'm a little ashamed). Therefore, I have not been alarmed by that part of the national discussion about torture. I am after reading I know waterboarding is torture - because I did it myself.

Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.  

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.  

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.  

Call it "Chinese Water Torture," "the Barrel," or "the Waterfall," it is all the same. Whether the victim is allowed to comply or not is usually left up to the interrogator. Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo. No doubt, to avoid human factors like fear and guilt someone has created a one-button version that probably looks like an MRI machine with high intensity waterjets.

The fuller version is at the excellent Small Wars Journal (via MountainRunner).

Ironically, the fact that the Bush Administration has legitimized waterboarding makes it that much more important that American service personnel be subjected to it in training because the likelihood increases that they will be tortured if they are captured.

However, when performed with even moderate intensity over an extended time on an unsuspecting prisoner – [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques are] torture, without doubt. Couple that with waterboarding and the entire medley not only "shock the conscience" as the statute forbids -it would terrify you. Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American.

But, now, reading through the comments, I'm reminded that my buddy, Dan, has weighed in on this topic. He takes exception with the author above, especially on technical issues like the use of rhetoric and the morality of the argument.

I find myself closest in opinion to 'ry', who I know digitally from Tom's weblog. I don't have a problem with shame, temperature, stress positions, etc. when it comes to interrogation. Of course, I do not want these to be used casually. I cannot agree that all of the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques are torture. In fact, of those listed in the link above, I would only say that waterboarding is truly out-of-bounds torture.

Now, let me hasten to add, I'm no authority. I may have missed something. I am open to learning from you. What do you think?


kris said...

I think it sounds even scarier than I thought it was. But they don't actually kill the people right?
You said you don't think all the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques are torture - do we know what all those techniques are?

Shawn said...

This is going to sound snarky, but I mean it to be thought-provoking:

So which forms of torture or near torture would Jesus be OK with?

Sean Meade said...

thank you both for your comments.

G-gG: right, they don't actually kill the people (although i imagine that could and has happened, especially when not physician-attended).

i don't know about all of the techniques, beyond those linked in my post.

S: thanks for the non-snark heads up.

the answer is 'none'. that's why any Christian should think twice and more about joining the military or similar organizations, including all the way up to the Commander-in-Chief.

Dan tdaxp said...

The answer to the question, is waterboarding torture, defends how you define torture. So many definitions have been thrown around these days, that I'm no longer clear what anyone means by the term.

Sean Meade said...

Dan: yes, and my definition, for purposes of this post, is like the SCOTUS on pornography: I know it when I see it. not very precise, but waterboarding is clear, to me.

Paul Stokes said...

Are such interrogation techniques "successful", in that facts are disclosed that are valuable and would not be otherwise developed on a timely basis? Somewhere I read that you mainly get from the person being interrogated whatever that person thinks the interrogator wants to hear, just to get him to stop.

Assuming that this kind of interrogation "works", is it appropriate, in determining the ethical question, to balance its use against the risk of proceeding without the information? People raise this justification all the time (e.g. "what if a dirty bomb is about to explode in the middle of Manhattan?"), and it is raised so frequently that we begin to think that this is not a valid approach. But wouldn't it be?

As "to what would Jesus do", with all due respect I think that approach says more about one's rather limited perception of Jesus than it serves to inform the discussion. In other words, I wouldn't be so certain that he would dismiss the approach under extreme circumstances.

Dan tdaxp said...


Something closer to the actual SCOTUS definition of pornography is that it's offensive, prurient, and without artistic value (the so-called "three pronged test").

A similar definition to torture might be that is painful, harmful, and without interrogative value... which somehow I doubt the anti-torture crowd would support as a definition. (Unless they get to define torture circularly as something that is conclusively presumed not to work.)

More broadly, pornography is an aesthetic medium, not a technical tool.

Paul Stokes said...

Glenn Reynolds reports that the US abandoned waterboarding in 2003.

Kelly Sedinger said...

How does Reynolds know this? He doesn't give any corroborating evidence to back up his claim. Secondly, we can always say that we don't do something, just as long as we keep it even more secret -- or we can do what's been regretfully common under the Bush Administration: take people we want to have tortured and ship them to "allies" who do the deed for us.

Brad B. said...

Diving into the definition game,

Abuse = Abu Ghraib
Torture = Our captured Marines getting their eyes gouged out while they are still alive and having holes drilled in their heads.

I admit, there is a lot of middle ground here.

While the provided link certainly made me lean more towards defining waterboarding as torture, I keep returning to the thought that if the author, plus "hundreds" of US military personnel, have been subjected to this with no long term psychological effects, where does that leave us on the abuse/torture scale?

This story claims that Khalid Sheik Mohammed confessed to 9/11 after waterboarding. Abu Zubaydah too. I know that interrogations from him also stopped several terror plots, but whether the parts of his confessions that proved to be unreliable were due to his bragging ego or outright fear of drowning is unknown.

Finally, while I'm still undecided on waterboarding, I do agree that a line needs to be drawn somewhere. I don't buy the argument that these techniques will lead to poor treatment of our soldiers since Islamic terrorists have been torturing our servicemen to death (so bad that fingerprints are needed for ID) since the 80's. Rather, I do buy into the argument that the ends don't justify any means. And to be honest, I always imagined that if a "ticking dirty bomb in NYC" situation ever came up, our side would do whatever was needed to save the day and await the charges to be dismissed.

Even so, that still brings us back to the question of whether this stuff actually works! Vocal experts say no (maybe the ones that say "yes" are too busy waterboarding to provide leaks to CBS) while the Khalid Sheik Mohammed story says yes...

My favorite technique is to make 'em think you've sent them off to an "ally" country for brutal interogation when, in fact, they are really at a US base being interviewed by Arab Americans posing as Saudis. ;-)