Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hitchens: On the Waterboard

In the August edition of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens reports that has allowed himself to be waterboarded and concludes that the process constitutes torture:

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. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, 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.


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.

Hitchens does seem to back off a bit from the absolutism of this statement later in the article:
Maybe I am being premature in phrasing it thus. Among the veterans there are at least two views on all this, which means in practice that there are two opinions on whether or not “waterboarding” constitutes torture. I have had some extremely serious conversations on the topic, with two groups of highly decent and serious men, and I think that both cases have to be stated at their strongest.


As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.

But he goes on to note that waterboarding "is a deliberate torture technique and has been prosecuted as such by our judicial arm when perpetrated by others." That is a point worth considering, though not itself dispositive.

The remainder of the article shifts from moral to policy analysis. The crux of his point is that "if we allow it and justify it, we cannot complain if it is employed in the future by other regimes on captive U.S. citizens. It is a method of putting American prisoners in harm’s way." I acknowledge this point, but I feel that this is a matter best left to the discretion of the military, who will bear the brunt of the risk.

I was actually impressed that he lasted as long as he did. I have tremendous respect for Hitchens’ integrity and courage in putting his pro-interrogation views to the test. Also, I appreciate the distinction he is trying to make between this sort of “torture” and the sort used by the enemies of civilization.

However, there is a kind of moral equivalence implied by use of the same word to describe both actions. I take it that Hitchens would say something like “waterboarding is unacceptably bad, but not as bad as other practices” which would save him from inconsistency but defeats the purpose by subjectivizing the definition of torture.

Given that the whole purpose of the procedure is to disorient the subject, his subjective judgment that it is torture remains unconvincing. Especially in light of the fact that he voluntarily underwent the procedure — twice! — it is hard to conclude that it should be categorically prohibited. In fact, having seen the video, I am slightly more inclined to approve of the procedure than I was before, provided that there are sufficient controls in place to avoid abuse.