When they do it, it’s torture. When we do it, its…interrogation techniques.

Interrogation techniques of the enhanced variety. Anything to avoid calling a spade a spade. Torture, or the infliction of pain, broadly defined, for political purposes, is a very evil thing. We in America have always considered it a practice of our enemies, and taken pride in the fact that we officially denounce it. In B-movies from the 80s (anything with chuck norris, rambo, or involving vietnam lookalikes), the bad guys are always depicted as torturing US soldiers. John McCain was tortured, as were other returnees from Vietnam, and they did tours around the country denouncing such a sordid morality.  But then it comes to light that America does this thing where they drown people without killing them. (In fact, this as only one among dozens of new “techniques” designed to cause massive pain to “suspects.”) Suddenly the same newspapers who have always labeled this ancient technique as torture, such as the NYTimes, stop calling it torture and start using euphemisms. Important not to burst the myth of the moral high ground here. We do indeed perform evil operations, but let’s all look the other way, shall we?


Study: Media Stopped Calling Waterboarding “Torture” Following Its Disclosure as Routine U.S. Practice

A new study says the U.S. corporate media drastically altered its use of the word torture after its practice by the U.S. became widely exposed under the Bush administration. Researchers at Harvard University found newspapers almost uniformly described waterboarding as torture dating back to the 1930s. But when it was revealed as a common tactic approved under President Bush, the same newspapers stopped using the word torture almost entirely. Whereas the New York Times had previously characterized waterboarding as torture in 81.5% of articles, from 2002 to 2008 it characterized waterboarding as torture in just 1.4 percent of articles.




It should be noted that the US is on the record now as practicing the most sadistic “interrogation techniques,” or tortures, imaginable. Besides the extralegal, but long tolerated practices of the Bagram and Abu Graib genre, such as forcing detainees to masturbate, hanging them by their arms until blood clots (from massive battering) give them a heart attack, psychological torture (placing reprehensible objects in proximity or onto detainees, whether urinating on the Quran or bringing in dogs, or pork, or stripping males in the presence of females, etc.)…

Beside these games of a sadist’s playground, there is the story of the detainees at Guantanamo.

I will only speak about one single one of them. He was the big bad guy. We had captured him. We wanted information from him. We began torturing him. Some think this kind of behavior is defensable: that is, torture without due process, that is, torture because someone, somewhere, “thinks” it might be useful to “defend America.”

Not a far cry from Stalinism. No due process, cruel torture because the guy at the top orders it.

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s case, as I will describe it, is simple: he was waterboarded multiple times a day for months on end. Now even those who support the immoral, awful, ethically indefensible use of torture must admit that after the first waterboardings, any torturee will have given what there is to be given, and will also learn that he or she will live through the process one way or the other. Christopher Hitchens, in his famous attempt to feel what it was like to be waterboarded, lasted, literally, less than two seconds. He says it was so awful, he was so sure he was dying, the pain was so excruciating, that he threw the signal baton to stop the process almost involuntarily. He is careful to point out afterward that waterboarding is not “simulated” drowning, it is actual drowning, only unfinished. In any case, this man, K.S. Mohammed, was waterboarded again, and again, and again. Not to mention the other awful practices that he must have endured between waterboarding sessions. In all, about one hundred and eighty times, in a third that many days. Which means that some days he was waterboarded three times a day. Far beyond, at that point, any instrumental value, we had degraded into pure sadism. I let Andrew Sullivan, who identifies with the American right, continue the discussion:

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another. Not just confinement of his mobility–the abolition of his very agency. Torture uses a person’s body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood. The CIA’s definition of “waterboarding”–recently leaked to ABC News–describes that process in plain English: “The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.” The ABC report then noted, “According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the waterboarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said Al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two and a half minutes before begging to confess.”

Before the Bush administration, two documented cases of the U.S. Armed Forces using “waterboarding” resulted in courts-martial for the soldiers implicated.

What minuscule intelligence we might have plausibly gained from torturing and abusing detainees is vastly outweighed by the intelligence we have forfeited by alienating many otherwise sympathetic Iraqis and Afghans, by deepening the divide between the democracies, and by sullying the West’s reputation in the Middle East.

Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit. And, if they are human, then they must necessarily not be treated in an inhuman fashion. You cannot lower the moral baseline of a terrorist to the subhuman without betraying a fundamental value. That is why the Geneva Conventions have a very basic ban on “cruel treatment and torture,” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment”–even when dealing with illegal combatants like terrorists.

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