This government does not torture.
— George W. Bush
All right! Waterboarding is a very unpleasant experience, which is sometimes fatal. I can also imagine that a small percentage of root canals are fatal, but no one routinely refers to them as torture—just very unpleasant.
That said, if I were grabbed off the street by five guys in ski masks who jabbed a hypodermic in my neck, threw me in the back of a van, stripped me to gooseflesh, gave me an enema and jammed a wad of cotton where only a proctoscope belongs, forced me into diapers and an orange jumpsuit, plugged my ears, duck-taped my eyes and put a sack over my head, shackled me in a stress position to the cold, aluminum deck of an unheated cargo plane for 15 hours, strapped me in a chair at some black dental site in Karachi and commenced the root canal in a shower of Punjabi expletives … then okay, maybe taken in toto I’d consider that experience torture.
On February 13 the Senate narrowly passed—on a 51-45 party-line vote—an intelligence bill that will, among other things, ban waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique,” a Bush-era euphemism for torture.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, traded his principled stance against waterboarding for a White House endorsement of his candidacy and voted against the ban. Torture is now officially a plank in the GOP platform. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama were too busy campaigning to go on congressional record as either supporting or opposing the ban.
Such a narrow political plurality against the torture of a human being is possible in an overly-religious nation because of the mistaken notion that torturing a person begins and ends with “waterboarding” and because that term sounds a lot like “waterslide” and “water park.” Who hasn’t gotten water up the nose while playing in a pool but still enjoyed the overall experience?
Dick Cheney refers to waterboarding as “a dunk in the water.” Attorney General Mukasey refuses to call it torture unless, of course, it’s happening to him. Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) defended his vote against the ban on waterboarding by saying, “It is not like putting burning coals on people’s bodies. The person is in no real danger … the impact is psychological.”
I have news for Mr. Lieberman. If I were strapped in a straitjacket and locked in a 2x3x7 foot box, the exquisite psychological pain of that experience would find no rival in burning coals. And I would say anything to make it stop. Torture, physical or psychological, is about as singularly personal an experience as birth and death.
Waterboarding has become the cause célèbre in the torture controversy that began in this country with the revelation of tortured Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. Considering the attention it gets—3,810,000 Google hits—one can be forgiven for thinking it is the only “enhanced interrogation technique” being used. In reality, it is only the most benign sounding of the Bush-era chamber of horrors, which includes, but is not limited to: electric shock, hypothermia, heat injuries, forced sexual acts, prolonged stress positions, beatings, dog attacks, withholding food, water, and medical attention, sleep depravation, sensory overload, and mock execution.
We have already become a nation “comfortable” with the idea that waterboarding is torture. In a November 2007 CNN poll, 68 percent of the respondents agreed that waterboarding constitutes torture. But only 58 percent of the respondents believe the U.S. should not use the technique. For now, there is a narrow moral plurality against its use.
Waterboarding is the thin edge of the wedge that will work its way into the political and moral discussion and slowly, but inexorably, desensitize the nation to the overt and covert use of all forms of torture. Torture will become a “regrettable” but necessary weapon in the war on terror, much as the madness of “mutual assured destruction” was thought to be integral to surviving the Cold War. Once in the arsenal, torture, like nuclear missiles, will become an unassailable tool of national defense.
Keep in mind, a particular torture technique is not applied in isolation, but is part of a longer torturing experience that includes kidnapping, extraordinary rendition, prolonged isolation, denial of legal rights, no communication with family, draconian sentences, loss of hope, psychosis, suicide, and execution.
Keep in mind also that too often the victims of a torturing experience are the innocent, the constitutionally protected dissenter, the political opponent, the disenfranchised … the children of the disappeared.
On June 18, 1940 the Russia army invaded Lithuania and began arresting community leaders and intellectuals. My aunt’s mother was a librarian, one of her town’s intellectuals. She was arrested and charged with espionage. To extract a confession, her interrogators used pliers to rip the flesh from the inside of her upper arms. I don’t know what she told them. She was, after all, just a woman who loved books. Regardless, she was convicted and condemned to death. After languishing for months in a death cell waiting to be executed, her sentence was commuted to fifteen years in a Siberian gulag. She did not see her husband or her children for a quarter of a century.
Her torture did not begin or end with the pliers—a Stalin-era “enhanced interrogation technique.” The scars from the pliers were visible on her arms, which she hid under long sleeves. The scars of twenty-five years were visible in her eyes, which she hid in books for the remainder of her life.
A society that accommodates itself to the idea of torture, be it torture of minutes or hours or months or years, forfeits the right to think of itself as moral or humane. That nation is not the beacon light of liberty and justice shining on less enlightened countries. It is the umbra.