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December 26, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments


Vice President Cheney’s recent interviews have once again brought his defense of waterboarding into the news. In a post at the beginning of the month, I expressed my dissatisfaction with a lot of mainstream press coverage that doesn’t call torture torture. Here is an example from yesterday’s NYT, in which Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes that

Mr. Cheney, by contrast, is unbowed, defiant to the end. He called the Supreme Court “wrong” for overturning Bush policies on detainees at Guantánamo Bay; criticized his successor, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.; and defended the harsh interrogation technique called waterboarding, considered by many legal authorities to be torture.

How can we still be debating whether waterboarding is torture? If one wishes to debate whether our military or CIA should engage in torture, let’s have that discussion. But let’s not refer to outright torture as a “harsh interrogation technique.”

Let’s review, if we must. From Wikipedia:

Waterboarding is a form of torture that consists of immobilizing a person on their back with the head inclined downward and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water, the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe that death is imminent. In contrast to merely submerging the head face-forward, waterboarding almost immediately elicits the gag reflex. Although waterboarding does not always cause lasting physical damage, it carries the risks of extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation, physical injuries (including broken bones) due to struggling against restraints, psychological injury, and, ultimately, death, which may be caused by one of the many possible conditions—not only drowning—that are triggered by this behavior. The physical effects of waterboarding can come on even months after the event, and the psychological effects on the victims can last for years.

Mind you, what we’re talking about is a variant of a form of torture used by the Spanish Inquisition:

A form of torture similar to waterboarding called toca, and more recently “Spanish water torture”, to differentiate it from the better known Chinese water torture, along with garrucha (or strappado) and the most frequently used potro (or the rack), was used infrequently during the trial portion of the Spanish Inquisition process. “The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had the impression of drowning”. [Scott, George Ryley, The History of Torture Throughout the Ages, p.172, Columbia University Press (2003)]

See also the discussion of waterboarding and torture at waterboarding.org

The NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof is in Cambodia with his family this week. He wrote a blog post this morning entitled What do the Bushies and the Khmer Rouge share?

The answer: enthusiasm for water-boarding. I’m in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and dropped by the Tuol Sleng genocide museum, where I soldiered through the haunting photos of the victims and pictures of tortures. The museum is on the site of the main torture center used by the Khmer Rouge during their brutal genocide in the 1970’s, and I was with my interpreter, whose father was executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Then I came to a familiar picture: a man being water-boarded. Beside it was the actual water-board that the Khmer Rouge used. It turns out that the Khmer Rouge had the same fondness for water-boarding as an interrogation technique that Dick Cheney does.

I do hope that one of Barack Obama’s first acts is an executive order barring any government official, including those in the intelligence community, from ever engaging in water-boarding again.

Which brings me back to where I started. In response to the Kristof post, I commented: “And I hope that in parallel with Obama’s barring of water-boarding, your colleagues at the NYT will learn to refer to water-boarding as torture, rather than writing phrases such as, to quote Sheryl Gay Stolberg from yesterday’s paper, ‘waterboarding, considered by many legal authorities to be torture.’ We all know it’s torture. Just say so.”

For another aspect of the torture debate, see Glenn Greenwald’s latest post.

Categories: Politics, Today's News
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