Home > Uncategorized > Waterboarding and Learning Nothing From the Past – posted 2/24/2016

Waterboarding and Learning Nothing From the Past – posted 2/24/2016

One of the surprising and lesser-remarked upon aspects of this campaign season has been the endorsement of waterboarding by the leading Republican presidential candidates. To quote candidate Trump: “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a helluva lot worse than waterboarding.”

Not wanting to be left behind, contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have concurred with Trump. Neither wants to take so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” off the table. Cruz has argued waterboarding is not torture. Rubio thinks we should not be talking about what tactics we might use.

A number of current and former Republican candidates including Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina also have embraced the euphemistically described enhanced interrogation techniques.

While I suppose these positions can, in part, be attributed to trying to look tough, they reflect a medieval mentality and a profound ignorance of the law. Torture, which includes waterboarding, is both illegal and immoral. Also, as has been widely recognized in the intelligence community, it does not work.

Life is not an episode of 24 but there seems to be some confusion about that.

Waterboarding is a very well-established, brutal form of torture, dating back to the 16th century. Many tyrants of all stripes have used it. It was used during the trial portion of the Spanish Inquisition. Church interrogators used torture both to obtain confessions and to punish. After beating the body , arms and legs, the Spanish introduced cloth into the mouth of the victim and poured quantities of water over the mouth and nose to create the impression of drowning.

The U.S. Army used waterboarding in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Then it was called the water cure.

During World War II, the Japanese used waterboarding to torture. The United States executed Japanese soldiers for multiple forms of mistreatment including water torture. The Japanese secret police, the Kenpeitai, used two methods of water torture. Waterboarding was one method and the other method involved tying prisoners to a ladder and sliding them down into a tub of water until the prisoner almost drowned. These methods were discussed in the Tokyo War Crimes trial held by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

In the 1950’s, during the Algerian War, the French used the practice against the Algerians and against perceived enemies. A French journalist, Henri Alleq, who was tortured by French paratroopers, wrote about the experience of being strapped to a plank, having his head wrapped in cloth and being positioned beneath a running tap:

‘The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I could’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a horrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me.”

On January 21, 1968, the Washington Post published a front page photograph of two American soldiers and one South Vietnamese soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese POW near Da Nang. The article described the practice as “fairly common”. Torture was an integral part of U.S. policy in Vietnam. The Tiger Cages on Con Son Island come to mind first but American advisors taught the South Vietnamese better methods for how to torture, including waterboarding.

The Khmer Rouge, the British Army in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, and the apartheid regime in South Africa all waterboarded.

In recent years, documents released by our own government show a sickening degree of sadism in our treatment of terror suspects from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In an article that appeared in Salon.com in 2010, Marc Benjamin wrote:

“Interrogators pumped detainees full of so much water that the CIA turned to a special saline solution to minimize the risk of death, the documents show. The agency used a gurney “specially designed’ to tilt backwards at a perfect angle to maximize the water entering the prisoner’s nose and mouth, intensifying the sense of choking – and to be lifted upright in the event that a prisoner stopped breathing.”

Torture and cruel acts like waterboarding have been internationally outlawed since the end of World War II. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated, ” No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.” There are no exceptions.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention III and the 1984 Convention Against Torture all would clearly prohibit waterboarding. The 1984 Convention Against Torture, promoted by President Reagan, criminalized torture and sought to end immunity for any torturer.

I would be remiss if I did not mention our own federal Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. There are also prohibitions in the United States Code which criminalize torture.

So how did we get to a place where candidates can unashamedly and without any seeming awareness endorse practices that are criminal? Also, how is it that the public response has been utterly muted?

I think the historian Alfred McCoy has best explained it. Professor McCoy says there is a pattern of expose of torture, momentary public awareness, no sustained investigation, no prosecution and no penalty. As a society, we do not punish the torturers. Professor McCoy says this pattern has repeated six times over the last 45 years, starting with Vietnam.

Professor McCoy calls it impunity: the failure to punish a wrongful act. Both political parties are implicated. The problem he sees is that without binding and serious prosecution, torture will continually recur. Without a consequence, torture is legitimated.

Contrary to the minimizing assertions of former Vice President Dick Cheney, our Darth Vader, there is no debate in the international community about whether waterboarding is torture. It is widely recognized in the civilized world as reprehensible.

Wanting to do worse than waterboarding reflects moral and legal cluelessness. It is know-nothing anger run amok. Torture leaves an indelible stain. For our country it can only guarantee ugly blowback.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Mark Robbins
    March 6, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks, Jon, for some of the history on this issue. Those who advocate for waterboarding, or worse, fail to appreciate that our abandonment of the Geneva conventions only exposes our own troops to the same sort of treatment, or worse. They might argue that our enemies have no principles, anyway, but does that mean that we abandon ours?

    • March 6, 2016 at 11:06 pm

      Mark – I totally agree with you. I just wrote a follow up piece focused on Guantanamo and I argued that the abuse is a recruiting tool for our adversaries. Hope you are doing well. Jon

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