In part III of this series, I discussed whether or not waterboarding yields reliable information, and whether the “ticking time bomb” scenario is reasonable.
Those are completely prudential concerns. They leave the question of whether waterboarding is torture and whether it is permissable at all totally unanswered. Hence, part IV.
Is Waterboarding Torture?
It can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, other physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damage or, if uninterrupted, death. Adverse physical consequences can start manifesting months after the event; psychological effects can last for years.
Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture, has treated “a number of people” who had been subjected to forms of near-asphyxiation, including waterboarding. An interview for The New Yorker states, “[He] argued that it was indeed torture, ‘Some victims were still traumatized years later’, he said. One patient couldn’t take showers, and panicked when it rained. ‘The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience’, he said”. Keller also stated in his testimony before the Senate that “water-boarding or mock drowning, where a prisoner is bound to an inclined board and water is poured over their face, inducing a terrifying fear of drowning clearly can result in immediate and long-term health consequences. As the prisoner gags and chokes, the terror of imminent death is pervasive, with all of the physiologic and psychological responses expected, including an intense stress response, manifested by tachycardia (rapid heart beat) and gasping for breath. There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water. Long term effects include panic attacks, depression and PTSD. I remind you of the patient I described earlier who would panic and gasp for breath whenever it rained even years after his abuse”.
Waterboarding is considered to be torture by a wide range of authorities, including legal experts, politicians, war veterans, intelligence officials, military judges, and human rights organizations. David Miliband, the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary described it as torture on July 19, 2008, and stated “the UK unreservedly condemns the use of torture.” Arguments have been put forward that it might not be torture in all cases, or that it is unclear. The U.S. State Department has recognized “submersion of the head in water” as torture in other circumstances, for example, in its 2005 Country Report on Tunisia.
Chase J. Nielsen, one of the U.S. airmen who flew in the Doolittle raid following the attack on Pearl Harbor, was subjected to waterboarding by his Japanese captors. At their trial for war crimes following the war, he testified “Well, I was put on my back on the floor with my arms and legs stretched out, one guard holding each limb. The towel was wrapped around my face and put across my face and water poured on. They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation, then they would let up until I’d get my breath, then they’d start over again… I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.”
Granted, this is from Wikipedia, which is not exactly the most reliable source. The sentence immediately preceding the quote above, for example, said it does not produce long lasting effects, which completely contradicts the testimony above. And just as there are conflicting testimonies on the question of whether or not it yields reliable intel, there are also conflicting testimonies in regards to waterboarding’s effects. Some, those who’ve experienced waterboarding, say that it’s rough, but you get over it quickly. Even Christopher Hitchens, a 60-something year old sedentary heavy smoker, was ready for another go soon after his initial waterboarding…you can make up your own mind. I’m gonna go ahead and say it qualifies as torture.
Is Waterboarding Ever Permissable?
Does that mean it must be categorically outlawed?
Perhaps the most eloquent argument against a categorical ban on torture (waterboarding specifically) comes from Christopher Hitchens, who is no fan of waterboarding. In his column titled, “Believe me, it’s Torture,” he lays it all out:
The team who agreed to give me a hard time in the woods of North Carolina belong to a highly honorable group. This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. 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.
The fact that Hitchens ultimately comes down against torture/waterboarding gives special weight to this argument.
McCain says there should be a categorical ban, Krauthammer no.
Albert Mohler agrees with McCain, but with important qualifications:
We are simply not capable, I would argue, of constructing a set of principles and rules for torture that could adequately envision the real-life scenarios under which the pressure and temptation to use extreme coercion would be seriously contemplated.
Instead, I would suggest that Senator McCain is correct in arguing that a categorical ban should be adopted as state policy for the U.S., its military, and its agents. At the same time, I would admit that such a policy, like others, has limitations that, under extreme circumstances, may be transcended by other moral claims. The key point is this— at all times and in all cases the use of torture is understood to be morally suspect in the extreme, and generally unjustified.
Rules institutionalize a reality and shape a society. The safe transit of automobiles requires a set of well-established, public, and intelligible traffic laws, including speed limits. At the same time, a parent rushing a bleeding child to the hospital may be stopped by a police officer, but such a parent is not likely to be arrested and prosecuted for breaking this law. Why? Because the parent’s action, under a set of unexpected but conceivable conditions, was understood by legal authorities to have been justified under this precise set of circumstances. The government does not stipulate in advance that such a set of allowable conditions exists, nor does it attempt to exhaust in advance what circumstances might exist that would be similarly justified. Instead, the law is understood to remain in full effect with full integrity even as legitimate and authorized legal agents decide not to arrest or prosecute a citizen whose law-breaking was understood to be justified under these precise circumstances. The rule is unchanged, and the law is not mocked.
These two contexts of moral decision-making can serve to develop a coherent and principled policy on the state’s use of torture and extreme coercion. First, the use of torture should be prohibited as a matter of state policy— period. No set of qualifications and exceptions can do anything but diminish the moral credibility of this policy. At the same time, rare exceptions under extreme circumstances can be considered under those circumstances by legitimate state agents, knowing that a full accounting of these decisions must be made to the public, through appropriate means and mechanisms.
Second, a thorough and legitimate review must be conducted subsequent to the use of any such techniques, with the agents who authorized or conducted such use of torture fully accountable, even to the point of maximum legal prosecution if their use of extreme coercion is seen to have been unjustified (not simply because the interrogation did not produce the desired information, but because the grounds of justification were invalid). The absence of legitimate accountability through a thorough and comprehensive process of review— with the threat of real and appropriate sanctions against those found to have acted without due justification— makes the state complicit in a web of cruelty and the official rationalization of evil.
Sounds reasonable, but there is a definite downside to this. After reporting about the CIA destroying tapes of interrogations, Bryan at Hotair states:
Agreed, the C.I.A shouldn’t be destroying evidence…The C.I.A. said today that the decision to destroy the tapes had been made “within the C.I.A. itself,” and they were destroyed to protect the safety of undercover officers and because they no longer had intelligence value. The agency was headed at the time by Porter J. Goss. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Goss declined this afternoon to comment on the destruction of the tapes.
This is what we get when we have leaders who abdicate leadership and don’t protect their subordinates for the consequences of the choices that the leaders make. This, essentially, is the result of Sen. John McCain’s announced policy of keeping interrogation techniques like waterboarding illegal, but knowing full well that it will be used in extreme circumstances, and that when it is used the agents who used it will find themselves in legal jeopardy no matter what the outcome of the interrogation was. It’s the politics of passing the buck.
I’m not blaming McCain alone for this; most of Washington basically sides with his effort to pass off responsibility to anyone but themselves, whether or not they signed on to the actual method McCain used in this specific case.
And here we are. Buck passed, agents in fear of prosecution and politicization destroying evidence, politicians once again side-stepping responsibility for their own predictably awful self-centered reasons. We have one more reason to loathe politicians on both sides of the aisle, and one more reason to suspect that our intel agencies are spinning more and more out of control and that terrorist-connected lawyers are gaming the system and no one in a position to do anything about it has the guts to call them out.
Read the whole thing. He makes some great points. It’s a tough call. Either way is subject to abuses. On the one hand, there is the very real possibility that men who do their duty to protect lives will be subject to public humiliation and prosecution. They are the ones making the hard decisions, yet they are the ones who will be demonized by an unthinking public and reactionary politicians.
On the other hand, you have the undesirable situation of codifying torture as government policy. Yikes. Like I said, it’s quite a sticky wicket.
In the next post (you mean there’s more?!!), I will address objections that allowing for torture at all is consequentialist in nature and therefore unsound morally.