09 March 2008

Waterboarding rhetoric evaporates under scrutiny

The starkness of the black and white photograph is striking: one soldier holds down the prisoner’s body with his hands and knees, another holds down the rag over the prone figure’s face, and the soldier on the right dumps water from a plastic canteen onto the prisoner’s covered face. This interrogation tactic is known as “waterboarding.”
According to our president, one of our “most valuable weapons in the war on terror” consists of nothing more then a hood and a few containers of water. Waterboarding, for the four of you who don’t know, is an interrogation technique involving the instinctual fear of drowning. A detainee is hooded and held down as water is poured on their head. After a while of not being able to breathe, the person starts to drown. In short, waterboarding creates all of the pain of drowning with none of the release. In the U.S., controversy emerged after it was revealed that waterboarding had been used in the interrogation of various Global War on Terror (GWOT) prisoners.
The Bush Administration’s attitude on waterboarding is that is does not fall under the classification of “torture.” Bush vetoed legislation designed to classify the technique as such March 8.
"The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the war on terror," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "So today I vetoed it.”
Wait. Let me get this straight. The United States of America, the greatest military power the world has seen in recent centuries, possessor of nuclear weapons, smart bombs and lasers, is relying on an interrogation technique first perfected during the Spanish Inquisition (Schweiker, William. "Baptism by Torture")? That’s our big “secret weapon?” Supporters of the technique say it is an effective way of gathering intelligence; detractors say it boils down to torture. I don’t know about you, but I agree with the latter. If you get someone under that kind of duress, they’ll pretty much say anything you want them to. You could probably get me to confess to being Osama bin Laden if you waterboarded me a few times. This, in my mind, makes it a less than effective weapon. The old adage of “quality over quantity” comes to mind; what’s the point of gathering intelligence if it’s not even credible? An example I use is what happened when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a high-ranking Al Queda official, was waterboarded while in U.S. custody. While some of the information he yielded was correct, he also confessed to being a part of 31 different terror plots ("Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's '31 plots'", BBC News, 2007-03-15). I don’t know about you - but the list doesn’t sound true to me. It sounded like he was telling his interrogators exactly what they wanted to hear.
I’ve heard the argument about the fictional scenario about an imminent attack on America, the details of which can only be obtained through waterboarding. Forgive me for being obtuse, but defending out nation probably doesn‘t have all of the testosterone-drenched melodrama of a “Die Hard” movie. Such a scenario, although vaguely, hypothetically plausible, is more wishful thinking than anything else. The odds of actually catching an active terrorist operative, let alone one in the midst of a doomsday plot, aren’t good enough reason to keep waterboarding “above board.” Despite this administration’s repeated claims of “we don’t torture,” the use of techniques like this seems to speak otherwise. The Bush Administration can get away with saying “We don’t torture,” simply because they haven’t classified techniques like waterboarding as torture. I would like to think the American people, indeed the rest of the world, can see through this.
I disagree with American use of waterboarding not because of empathy for America’s enemies. I know the pain of losing people on the front lines of our new war. I lost a relative on 9/11 and an old high school friend during the first battle of Falluja. However, as the United States, we’re supposed to be the beacon of hope in the world. We’re supposed to be the “good guys,” right? How does being the beacon of freedom and hope tie into things like waterboarding? If anything, it gives the very enemies we are fighting more credence in their belief that we’re an evil country that says one thing and does another. How are the people we’re supposed to work with believe our rhetoric of freedom when we employ the same tactics as the regimes we came in to replace? When we stoop to fighting an enemy on his level, do we not run the risk of becoming the very thing we’re trying to destroy?
Those soldiers I mentioned in my opening paragraph were Americans in Vietnam. The photograph was published in the Washington Post in January 1968 (Pincus, Walter, "Waterboarding Historically Controversial; In 1947, the U.S. Called It a War Crime; in 1968, It Reportedly Caused an Investigation" Washington Post, October 5, 2006). This isn’t the first time U.S. forces have used waterboarding - it was also done during the Spanish American War (“Cheney endorses simulated drowning,” Manchester Guardian, Friday, Oct. 27 2006). In my mind, this blows Bush’s argument about not wanting to discuss the technique because it would allow out enemies to train to avoid it. If anything, such an attitude indicates an intense desire for the conversation to end. How exactly does one prepare to be waterboarded? During research for this article, I found that trained CIA agents lasted an average of 14 seconds of waterboarding before caving in (Ross, Brian. "CIA's Harsh Interrogation Techniques Described", ABC News, November 8, 2007). If our own highly-trained intelligence officers can’t prepare to avoid caving during waterboarding, how would our relatively unsophisticated enemies be expected to do the same?
By using waterboarding, we’re putting ourselves alongside historically undesirable company. During the Second World War, secret police forces in Germany and Japan both used waterboarding techniques during interrogations. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge used waterboarding to torture detainees during their reign in Cambodia. Do we really want to add our name to this list’s company by continuing with this practice? I think we’re better than that - and banning waterboarding would be a step in right direction in proving to both the world and those we fight that we’re the side of light and hope in the global war on terror.

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