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Occam Bandage's Journal
Posted by Occam Bandage in General Discussion (1/22-2007 thru 12/14/2010)
Tue Apr 21st 2009, 10:17 PM
As I understand it, the torture component of waterboarding is mostly psychological. It is not torture because it is physically unpleasant (though it certainly is, and very much so) but rather because it convinces the victim that he is drowning, which leads to a natural panic reaction. It is not torture because of what it does to people's bodies per se, but instead because of what it does to people's minds. That is why military personnel who are at risk of capture, such as pilots, are waterboarded as part of their training, and have been for some time; my father was waterboarded twice as part of his Navy training (which took place shortly after the end of Vietnam). He was taught that the way to survive waterboarding was to focus on the knowledge that he was not drowning, that the perception of such was an illusion, that no harm could come to him, and that it would be over shortly. I am friends with a member of the Army Intelligence and Security Command, serving in Iraq, who told me his recent training was similar.

So here's my question: after, say, the dozenth or so waterboarding session, wouldn't Khalid Sheikh Mohammed begin to think, "hey, wait, I haven't drowned yet, maybe they're just fucking with me?" And after, say, the hundredth session, would there be any effectiveness left to the technique? It seems to me that waterboarding, which relies on the victim's belief that his life is in immediate danger, would quickly cease to be anything of an interrogation technique. And it seems to me that the CIA would realize that as well.

Please don't interpret this as a defense of torture; it certainly isn't. It seems to me like in the case of Mr. Mohammad, the schedule of waterboarding at some point apparently ceased to be torture, or even interrogation, and just became run-of-the-mill detainee abuse. That, I think, is somewhat more frightening.

It is frightening that Americans would torture a man 183 times in an attempt to extract information from him. There is, however, some tiny scrap of justification from a very skewed, immoral perspective: if it is torture it is done with the intent to extract information and therefore to protect Americans. It's a shitty defense and anyone who gives it a moment's credibility ought be shamed, to be sure. However, if it ceases to be torture (and thus ceases to be an effective interrogating technique by the arguments of those who defend its use), there is no compelling reason to use it by any justification. Even under the Dick Cheney "torture a thousand foreigners to save one American" model of morality, the majority of the waterboardings were unjustified, and yet they were administered. That, I think, makes the Cheney defense entirely unreasonable even under its own standards: if waterboardings number 20 through 183 were administered despite knowing there was no hope of gaining any information, then it is highly unlikely that waterboardings 1 through 19 were done to get information. Rather, it would seem likely that all 183 waterboardings occurred for one unifying reason. I would guess that they occurred for the same reason that prisoners are abused anywhere in the world: simple human malice, combined with a reckless and deliberate lack of oversight enabling that malice.

Dick Cheney, for all his faults, is not a stupid man. He must have known that the torture of detainees was not being done to preserve and protect American lives. He must have known that information-gathering and torture were two separate issues. So I am somewhat at a loss for motive, other than the obvious: he was expanding Executive power past the bounds of legality on principle. He is, after all, on record repeatedly bemoaning the loss of Presidential power after Nixon and Watergate. So was the entire system of deliberate acceptance of torture and prisoner abuse maintained by the Vice President simply because he wanted to prove that the President could torture if he wanted to? That's the only conclusion I can come to at the moment, and it seems kind of bizarre.
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