Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tails, You Lose

A while back I proposed,
If you wish to assert that something is not torture, you subject yourself to the technique at the hands of those who disagree. If, after a standard application of the technique, you continue to insist that the technique is not torture, you win! If you confess that it is torture, even if just to get things to stop, you lose.
Although my challenge likely fell far below his radar screen, other similar challenges did not - and Christopher Hitchens decided to prove the challengers wrong.
The "official lie" about waterboarding, Hitchens says, is that it "simulates the feeling of drowning". In fact, "you are drowning - or rather, being drowned".

He rehearses the intellectual arguments, both for ("It's nothing compared to what they do to us") and against ("It opens a door that can't be closed"). But the Hitch's thoroughly empirical conclusion is simple. As Vanity Fair's title puts it: "Believe me, it's torture."
I'm a bit surprised that it took the experience of being waterboarded for Hitchens to recognize something so obvious, and if he refreshes his memory on the history of waterboarding he will discover that this is one of the techniques we have historically complained about "them" doing to "us", and some of our ideas were taken from "them" (even though "they" used the same techniques on "us" to elicit false confessions), but I'll give him credit for being honest about his experience.

How long did it take between the start of the exercise and when Hitchens signaled "unbearable distress" causing the exercise to stop? Approximately 16 seconds. He relates,
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.
His realization,
Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
Almost in the next breath, he retreats from those words:
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.
Hitchens continues, explaining why he still (now) comes down against waterboarding. But he seems to have forgotten another point of history - the forms of torture that don't leave marks were developed in no small part because they are as effective, or more effective, than those that do, by regimes that wanted plausible deniability when western groups challenged them as torturing political prisoners. Also, how much thought does it take to realize that torture that leaves you "unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time" is likely to be far more beneficial to your interrogator than torture that leaves you unresponsive or kills you.

Hitchens' voluntary sixteen seconds (and a second round of an undisclosed duration) gave him hints of post-traumatic stress disorder. What if he couldn't have called off the exercise - if he would have been waterboarded again and again until he disclosed whatever it was his interrogators sought to learn (whether or not he had that information)? Wait - let's ask Hitchens (from the video):
It would be bad enough if you did have something ... but what if you didn't have anything? What if they'd got the wrong guy? Then you would really, you'd be in danger of losing your mind very quickly, I think.
Because if it makes you lose your mind but doesn't leave a scar, it's not "real" torture?

1 comment:

  1. I probably should have noted Hitchens' reference to 1984's "room 101". Hitchens claims to be a huge fan of Orwell, and pours scorn on those he sees as misunderstanding Orwell. So remind me again, when Winston was to face the "worst thing in the world" in Room 101, how much actual application of force or pain on his person did it take to break him?


    Yet it seems Orwell intended us to understand that it was "real" torture.


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