Swans Commentary » swans.com November 5, 2007  



The Insurgent Word: Waterboarding


by Gerard Donnelly Smith





(Swans - November 5, 2007)   For such a heinous act, the term waterboarding seems inappropriate, a nice euphemism. If one were unaware of the practice, one would think waterboarding were a new kind of sport like surfing or skate boarding practiced by teenagers, rather than torturers. However, such euphemistic terms are common place among those who torture; if we redefine the word, use ambiguous language, then torture no longer tortures: it waterboards.

For Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey, the definition of "waterboarding" as or as not torture is central to his confirmation hearing. Fortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee is aware of the language games being played. The previous Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, sanctioned waterboarding, along with "slaps to the head" and "freezing temperatures" as legitimate interrogation techniques. Indeed, Gonzales, in his summary of Re: Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. 2340-2340A, defended acts such as waterboarding:

Each component of the definition emphasizes that torture is not the mere infliction of pain or suffering on another, but is instead a step well removed. The victim must experience intense pain and suffering of the kind that is equivalent to the pain that would be associated with the serious physical suffering so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage resulting in a loss of significant body function will likely result. If that pain or suffering is psychological, that suffering must result in [...] long term mental harm.

In fact, waterboarding doesn't "directly" cause organ failure or even "permanent damage" or "death." However, indirectly waterbarding can! To his shame, Gonzales, in his torturous memo, makes it clear that even if such acts as "waterboarding" and "freezing" and "slapping" were to result in "death" that the perpetrator (i.e., torturer) would not be guilty of torture, because his/her intention would not have been to cause "death" or "organ failure" or "permanent damage." In other words, "oops, I accidentally slapped him too hard, or froze him too long. I'm sorry he is dead. Can I go now?"

Indeed, even the definition of "loss of significant body function" is so vague that an interrogator might argue that cutting off a finger or two won't result in a significant loss of the hand's function, especially if the individual has never or will never desire to play a musical instrument.

So under this definition, Senator John McCain, who should know the meaning and the long-term effects of waterboarding, freezing, and multiple slaps to the head, is wrong about what constitutes torture. McCain noted that waterboarding was used "in the Spanish Inquisition [...] in Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia" and allegedly by the Military Junta against the Buddhist monks in Burma. Who better to tell us than this former POW and war hero?

Do violent acts such as "slapping" and "freezing" and "waterboarding" cause permanent, psychological damage? Obviously such actions cause permanent damage; the reality of post-traumatic-stress-disorder is well documented. Right-wing conservatives argue that abortion causes PTSD, so how can anyone argue that "waterboarding" does not have similar effects? The teenage girl or woman undertakes an abortion voluntarily, and the procedure is performed by a sympathetic doctor, accompanied by a sympathetic nurse. Contrast this patient with the prisoner of war who has not "voluntarily" given his consent face to stimulate drowning. If abortion causes PTSD, a long-term psychological effect, then "waterboarding" also causes PTSD.

Passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 retroactively protects anyone who use waterboarding from prosecution. Why would such a protection and pardon be necessary if "waterboarding" doesn't cause excruciating suffering, or long-term psychological damage? Why? Because the U.S. tried, convicted, and jailed (for 15 years), a Japanese officer for using waterboarding against American soldiers in WWII. Hypocritically, US soldiers used waterboarding to interrogate Korean prisoners of war. Of course, those who used the "well-documented" torture technique want protection from prosecution. They would be tried, convicted, and jailed in any European court or in most courts of most civilized nations. What then has the U.S. become? What kind of society would do such a thing?

If the Spanish Inquisition used waterboarding as a torture technique, if Pol Pot used waterboarding as a torture technique, if the Japanese used waterboarding as a torture technique, then waterboarding is torture. Despite the game of semantics spelled out in the Gonzales memo, despite the quibbling by Rudy Giuliani and other conservative candidates for president, the use of violent means to extract information is torture.

Let someone rip off your fingernails to see if you tell the truth. Let someone wrap plastic around your head, pour water over your face, then ask you to tell the truth. Let someone slap you about the head for 15 minutes, before you answer whether or not these acts are torture, are cruel and intended to cause suffering.

If words can have "malicious" intent, so much so that we do not protect them as free speech, but victims of slander and libel can seek redress under the law, then why do we allow such malicious acts as described above to be defined as legitimate interrogation techniques? Words will never hurt me, but sticks and stones, slaps about the face, freezing, and waterboarding will!

If you want to create or maintain an insurgency, then by all means torture your prisoners of war and your enemy combatants.


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About the Author

Gerard Donnelly Smith on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/gsmith96.html
Published November 5, 2007