Honesty in Torture
Among the many topics that I regret having had insufficient time in my schedule to address appropriately is torture (and I’m not claiming this post to constitute all that I’d like to say about it). Frankly, I’ve been torn, and I view with suspicion anybody who believes that the debate, as it’s been cast, is an obvious call. Torture is wrong, clearly, but the very question at issue is what constitutes torture.
There are extremes about which we can agree. Scourging, torture; refusing to provide arugula (whatever that is), not torture. The line, though, is inherently subjective, and if we’re to discuss it, we’ve got to be honest about the specific act about which we’re talking.
For my part, superficial as it may seem, when I think of torture, I think of the scene in Lethal Weapon that begins at 13:20 of this video. The famous quotation sums up the dividing line: “Endo, here, has forgotten more about dispensing pain than you and I will ever know.” (I’ve always thought that to be a dumb way to phrase a threat, by the way. If the measure is what Endo has forgotten, then it’s quite possible that he’s forgotten enough to be just about harmless.) The idea is that mounting pain will bring the torture to an end, even if that end is a quick, painless death.
On the other side of the line, my subjective take is colored by having been a fraternity pledge. Sleep deprivation. Subjection to disagreeable, repeated, and very loud music. Being made to swallow live goldfish whole. Unless we’re to define torture to absurdity, these practices do not suffice. (Indeed, all but the last are as readily applicable to parenthood.)
If we attribute even a minimal sincerity to the sides on this issue, it’s clear that waterboarding resides somewhere very near the natural line of torture/non-torture for our society. In contrast to the electroshocks and salt rubbed in wounds in the Lethal Weapon scene, waterboarding as performed by American agents was not a means of inflicting pain, but of triggering a reflex. Implemented as approved, it leveraged discomfort and instinctive fear in a controlled environment.
The topic comes up, now, because the Left is delighted to have video of conservative shock jock Erich “Mancow” Mullen succumbing within seconds to waterboarding and declaring it to have been torture. If we’re to be specific, however, it’s debatable whether this was the version of waterboarding used during U.S. interrogations; the “interrogator” covered Mancow’s nose with a wet cloth and then proceeded to pour water into his open mouth. Large amounts of water, therefore, likely filled his nasal cavity, which resulted in the quick cave.
This video better captures the procedure, as I understand it. Do your best to put aside circumstances; Mancow was in a brightly lit office building surrounded by friends during his popular radio show, while Kaj Larsen subjected himself to the broader experience of hostile interrogation, including the jumpsuit, the dark basement, the masked perpetrators, and the isolation from other people.
Mr. Larsen’s experience does look, as he says with a laugh toward the end of the video, as if it “sucked.” The wet cloth covered his nose and mouth, for a slower build-up of moisture. A second “interrogator” put pressure on his abdomen, and the scene was performed with a much more hostile, desperate tenor, with banging canteens and such. It’s certainly not a pleasant experience, but it probably wasn’t only his comparative softness that led Mancow to surrender more quickly. In Larsen’s video, one gains better context for the actuality of being waterboarded 183 times, if (as I understand to have been the case) each application of the towel, even if only for a second, counts as one.
So, is this torture? Is it a sin that cries out to God? I can’t say that I think it is. It’s immoral, surely, at least inasmuch as it objectifies the subject. I would not perform it, and I would not ask that somebody else do it on my behalf. But does this specific procedure surpass the line across which we must forbid it even among those who believe it to be necessary? Those who have the burden of security for millions of their countrymen? I’m not so sure. Does it so clearly cross that line as to justify retroactive prosecution of those who approved it? No.
Let’s be honest, too, about the impetus for the continuing outrage, even as the technique — this worst of the batch — has ceased to be used. It’s a political cudgel and opportunity to express an unhealthy hostility toward a hated President and loathed cultural class. Consider this comment on RI Future from Matt D, in response to a conservative commenter’s offer to be waterboarded:
Hopefully it’s either Carcieri, Watson or Trillo all right wing whackjobs. Even DePetro or Yorke would do also, maybe we’ll get lucky and whoever it is will drown and we’ll have one less of these idiots. Sign me up for front row……
There’s a contingent, in this country, for whom it is a far greater affront to hold conflicting political beliefs (well within the republican democratic mold) than to threaten and pursue genocide against their fellow Americans.