The reason I write about this today is that there's an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the doctors and other medical professionals involved in the justification and authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques ought to be held to account for their alleged misdeeds. (As neither a medical professional nor an attorney, I'm not going to pass judgment on this claim, but I think the piece is worth a read.) The offending sentence seemed a bit out of place in a column that is aggressively anti-EITs: "The [CIA's Office of Medical Services] did allow that waterboarding could be dangerous, and that the experience of feeling unable to breathe is extremely frightening."
Again, we're not talking about feeling unable to breathe. We're talking about being unable to breathe. Here's what Malcolm Nance, former Navy SERE school trainer and counterterrorism/intelligence professional, had to say on the issue in his thorough critique of waterboarding on Small Wars Journal (entitled "Waterboarding is Torture... Period"):
Whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture is a question that's been debated extensively for at least the last three years, so I'm not all that interested in re-litigating it here. (Nance does a much better job; read his piece.) I just want us all to come to a consensus on the fact that the actualized reality of something is different from a simulation of that same thing.
2. Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.
Call it “Chinese Water Torture,” “the Barrel,” or “the Waterfall,” it is all the same. Whether the victim is allowed to comply or not is usually left up to the interrogator. Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo.
No doubt, to avoid human factors like fear and guilt someone has created a one-button version that probably looks like an MRI machine with high intensity waterjets.
(While we're on the subject, it's sort of coincidental that just last night I listened to this episode of "This American Life." I should note here that there's almost no relationship between this particular radio program and the point I'm making above, except for the title and general concept: "Simulated Worlds." It's premised on the argument that the desire for hyperreality -- and relatedly, an appetite for simulations and recreations of nearly everything -- is a uniquely American trait. The episode closes with a musing on how "Morning Edition" (NPR's daily morning news show), like all radio news, engages in a sort of Russian-dolls format -- anchor kicks it to reporter, reporter kicks it to guy on the ground, guy on the ground kicks it to actual footage from on the scene: "the actuality," in radio parlance -- that results in the news consumer only getting about a six- or seven-second window into "real life" in every minutes-long news segment. Our hunt for reality and truth keeps getting us less and less of real life. But I digress.)