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to torture, or not to torture
it's not even a question that the u.s. should not engage in waterboarding
by jeffrey d. walker

Waterboarding: if for any reason you just read that word and think it’s something akin to surfing, please close the web browser / book you are reading this from and never ever come back.

Ok, not really. I guess you can be in on this, too. But, in case you don't really know what I'm talking about, let me take a moment to direct you to the Wikipedia entry on waterboarding.

You'll note that the article mentions that "In January 2009 President Barack Obama banned the use of waterboarding." Moreover, even Glenn Beck's poll on waterboarding resulted in a majority of people agreeing that waterboarding is torture (I've found no poll that doesn't find the same result).

So, it's outlawed, and people agree that it's torture. That should be the end of it, right?

Not quite.

The recently elected Republican senator from Massachusetts came out in favor of waterboarding; and yes, he did so before he was elected, so it wasn't like all of those horribly accented folks in The Bay State were confused or something.*

And, in fact, they may have not been confused because, though every poll I can get my hands demonstrates our collective agreement that waterboarding is torture, there is arguably (depending on your source) a majority of Americans who wouldn't mind its use on an alleged terrorist. For example, one CNN poll found that: "Roughly one in five Americans believe [waterboarding] techniques were torture but nonetheless approve of the decision to use those procedures against suspected terrorists".


Let me mention that waterboarding is not new: it was used during the Spanish Inquisition, by Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and the World War II Japanese military. And though I'm no expert on irony, I think it's ironic that there are Americans who still who favor waterboarding alleged terrorists when, in fact, the United States "executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs." Yep, that's true. That fact alone negates any argument the Unites States may ever make in favor of waterboarding. If we kill people for doing such techniques, how can we then justify doing the same? What's good for the goose, as they say.

But forget about that. Let's pretend for a moment that such a moral sticky wicket didn't exist for the United States and waterboarding. Consider instead why people who consider such the act "torture" still would condone its use.

This answer is boils down to a couple of reasons in my opinion:

(1) For the rest of the lives of any American who lived through 9/11/2001, there will be a major indifference towards how poorly suspected terrorist are treated by our government. That's a shame, but (and as someone who lived in NYC), it's a feeling I understand;

(2) Less emotional, but also less clear, is the presumption that waterboarding works (probably due to the show "24" in part). And, when we're talking about American lives, why wouldn't we use what works?

But the question then is, does waterboarding, in fact, work?

If you would have listened to former CIA operative, John Kiriakou, in 2007, when he claimed that senior al Qaeda commando Abu Zubaydah cracked after only one application of waterboarding for about half a minute, you would have presumed it did. Kirikou was cited by Rush Limbaugh (among others) on multiple occasions afterwards as proof positive that it was in the U.S.'s best interest to continue the practice.

Too bad he's a fat liar: Kiriakou recently admitted that "I wasn't there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I'd heard and read inside the agency at the time." Moreover, declassified "… Justice Department memoranda showed that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded 83 times, with doubtful results."

Ok, ok, so some jerk lied about waterboarding's effectiveness on one guy. Haven't we tried it on others?

Yes: exactly two. Only three people have ever been waterboarded by the CIA, and of those, the so-called most effective use of waterboarding was in breaking Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("KSM"), the alleged 9/11 mastermind, who was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.

First off, the problem of the truth (if there was any) in KSM's "confessions" are that the CIA had to have broken their own rules for waterboarding for the number of 183 to have even been reached. According to a declassified memo, waterboarding was permitted for two sessions per day of up to two hours, and that during each session, water may be applied up to six times for ten seconds or longer, but never more than 40 seconds; and, that in a 24-hour period, a detainee may be subjected to up to twelve minutes of water application; additionally, the waterboard may be used on as many as five days during a 30-day approval period.

Reviewing that insight, the blog, emptywheel, noted that:

"... two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you'd need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you've waterboarded 90 times–still just half of what they did to KSM."

Ok, so the CIA arguable went over-water-board. But didn't they get great stuff? I mean, KSM confessed to planning 29 individual attacks, many of which never came to fruition.

Well, I'd probably confess to most anything if you essentially caused me to almost drown 183 times in a month, too. But most importantly, the most commonly referenced "attack" that was allegedly thwarted by KSM's waterboarding torture was former President George W. Bush's allegation that said waterboarding prevented an attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this is another lie, where the Bush administration first reported that the Library Tower attack was thwarted in February 2002, but KSM was not captured until March 2003.

What were left with is: no evidence that waterboarding has ever demonstrated proven results, coupled with U.S. precedent that people who waterboard suspects should be executed.

So why are we still talking about waterboarding as a viable option, exactly?

* Don't even start about the bad Massachusetts accents. And don't even think I'm going to care for one second by your complaining to me about saying this. Instead, watch this and complain to them, because they're taking it way farther than me, and they probably reach a larger audience. Plus, if you live in Mass., you just elected Scott Brown. So F*ck you anyway.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

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tim lockwood
2.15.10 @ 10:25a

You reminded me of something from almost a year ago. Conservative radio host Erich "Mancow" Muller volunteered to undergo waterboarding to prove it wasn't torture. He changed his tune almost instantaneously: http://bit.ly/JV6nO

Sean Hannity has yet to make good on a promise he made to allow himself to be waterboarded for charity. Of course he would chicken out. Most of the gutless wonders who claim that we don't torture people, and waterboarding wasn't torture, have never experienced it themselves and are too chicken to try. Too bad, because there's a lot of money waiting to go to people who could really use it.

jeffrey walker
2.15.10 @ 11:05a

I heard about that; it's also referenced in the wiki waterboarding article. They also mention an author / journalist Christopher, Hitchens, who voluntarily underwent waterboarding and concluded that it was torture, as well as stated that he has suffered ongoing psychological effects from the ordeal.
Check also if you get the chance Jesse Ventura talking about waterboarding Dick Cheney on CNN ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/12/jesse-ventura-coleman-a-h_n_202629.html ). Maybe not very insightful, but I just love his delivery on most topics.

reem al-omari
2.15.10 @ 12:23p

You know, I'm going to put my two cents in, though it might be upsetting to some, but I'm going to adopt your attitude with the footnote, which is: if it upsets you, you probably suck anyway, so screw it.

What I want to say is that more often than not, in some patriotic American psyches, there exists the belief that Americans can really do no wrong. Even when they do screw up and people die as a result, it doesn't matter in such psyches, because guess what? Americans are just innocent people, who have it better than everyone else in the world, and the entire world is just jealous of them... that's precisely why everyone wants to kill them, don't you know? It couldn't possibly have to do with the fact that American policy has stripped many nations and entire regions of their sovereignty in order to meet America's political and other needs, for a start.

I have sat quietly and listened to people who consider themselves patriotic Americans (and, I must mention this, Republicans) say things that make me feel like I'm living in the Twilight Zone. That I've spent over half my life believing a lie that I'd have to search high and wide to find someone who can be so horribly ignorant and arrogant as someone who says: "Who cares? They hate us anyway, so why not bomb the F*** out of 'em and show 'em what we're made of?"

Of course, I'm referring to the comments I kept hearing in the months following 9/11, at work, while having lunch with my coworkers. That was almost a decade ago, but still, when I close my eyes and try to picture a person who would condone waterboarding, even after knowing fully well that it's torture, that it takes numerous sessions for it to net results, far beyond what is ridiculously classified as "legal"... I see the faces of my coworkers and lunchmates entirely too clearly. I can attach names, voices, smells, personalities... and it infuriates me, because that lunch group was big enough to take up an entire bench in the cafeteria, and I was the only one who didn't say anything. I just sat there and shoveled food in my mouth, hoping that the hours left of the day would zip by like usual following lunch.

The point of me telling you this, is simply this: your argument is solid, convincing to anyone without blind patriotism infecting and eating their brain, and voices my own belief that waterboarding is torture that belongs where it started: back in Spain's "Golden Age." But there will always be a large enough group to make the use of waterboarding a question in our society.

Finally, the guys who volunteered to be waterboarded and then changed their stance on it remind me of the movie Goya's Ghosts, which interestingly enough, is set during the Spanish Inquisition. The part I'm reminded of shows how one of the big heads of the Inquisition is subject to the torture he orders, and it screws with him quite a bi


cynthia wolf
2.15.10 @ 1:15p

Waterboarding does indeed sound horrible. Free people really need to be careful about how much power we relinquish in order to be safe.

But, when I think about 9/11, beheading online, girls murdered by their father in a Dallas, TX 'honor killing', women shot in the street 'cause their burqa blew up, people murdered for protesting in Iran, etc., I realize I don't care what happens to terrorists. Make an example of them & send a message to the other loons that these things are unacceptable. Waterboarding-- peshaw. When you think about the torture Islamic terrorists inflict, IMHO they're getting off wayyy easy.

tim lockwood
2.15.10 @ 3:24p

Cynthia, your feelings are understandable. Nobody really likes terrorists, after all, and it's hard to muster much sympathy for people who murder innocent people. But torture in the name of justice is still torture. If we torture terrorists, we roll around in the same filth as they. At that point, we are stooping to the terrorists' level, which makes us no different from them.

I, for one, know we can rise above it. But it takes a strong and steady will to not give in to our baser instincts.

jeffrey walker
2.15.10 @ 3:30p

Cynthia; you seem to be advocating waterboarding simply in response to bad acts by terrorist, not even for a supposed purpose (such as interrogation). If that does define your thoughts, then put simply, that attitude is not going to make us more safe. Moreover, the same is really wrong-headed when using any moral compass.

alex b
2.16.10 @ 1:06p

Heavens. There is no argument- waterboarding is barbaric. By carrying out this act- especially in retribution- then it makes us vicious terrorists. And I am in agreement with everyone else who has said that we have to be better than that. We are easily capable of finding another means of interrogation.

As for the folks who advocate this like Brown, I'm disgusted to see people run for (and win) public office under the banner of God and family values, and then turn around to say something like this. Advocating torture for the sake of a tasty bit of sound bite (and to hear his own voice ringing with "patriotism") is sleazy and narcissistic. Moral authority shouldn't be represented like this.

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