Friday, October 27, 2006

A dunk in the water

Prepare yourself. Take a deep breath. I'm about to defend Dick "Darkside" Cheney.

Perhaps you've hear the latest flap over whether Cheney admitted to supporting "waterboarding," the controversial technique of strapping suspected terrorists to a board, lowering -- dunking? -- them into water, then pulling them out just before really bad things happen. Here's the NY Times summary:

Cheney triggered the flap in an interview Tuesday by radio broadcaster Scott Hennen of WDAY in Fargo, N.D. Hennen said callers had told him, ''Please, let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves lives.''

''Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?'' Hennen asked.

''Well, it's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there I was criticized as being the vice president for torture,'' Cheney said. ''We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in.''

Human rights groups, Democrats, and various others are apoplectic over these remarks. I'm not. First, this was a radio interview, a friendly radio interview, and there's a world of difference between saying "yeah, a dunk in the water is ok if we know it would save lives" -- I actually agree with Cheney on this, assuming we know the "dunk" will actually work -- and saying "the U.S. condones the use of waterboarding." Second, and this is really provocative, is waterboarding really so bad? Assume coercively obtained testimony is reliable (a big assumption). I've never understood why waterboarding should be considered "torture," insofar as it is more psychological ("you are going to drown, so fess up!") rather than abusive ("here I am ripping out your figernails -- confess to make it stop").


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I've got to say, Benji, I completely disagree. Waterboarding fits my definition of torture pretty easily. Have you ever felt like you were about to drown? It's one of the worst feelings I've ever experienced, very few things have stimulated such a dramatic reaction in me. If the waterboarding of prisoners is ok to you, then is the strangulation of them as well? Both are essentially simply a method of cutting off the supply of oxygen, one simply requires that the person be strapped to a board first.

-'Lil Bro

2:01 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

To answer your question, yes, I felt like I was going to drown when I went body-boarding down the Zambezi river, and got sucked 40 feet under water by a rapid. I was scared shitless, then felt a sense of peace, interrupted by getting shot back up toward the surface.

So what's your definition of torture? Is any physically coercive method of interrogation torture? To me, the key point is that the interrogator knows the prisoner is not going to drown, but the prisoner does not. As a result, psychological fear is the motivating factor, though surely the physical effects are highly unpleasant.

Interestingly enough, I actually know someone who's been waterboarded. He wrote, after reading this post, "it was not as bad as I expected, but I can imagine ways it could have been worse." I've asked for more detailed explanation.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that the specific defition of torture is really what's important here (for the record, I consider torture the direct and intentional infliction of anguish, either mental or physical, on an individual in the hopes of achieving some end), what we're really discussing is efficacy.

I'm a bit of a romantic, but I've always managed to temper that sentiment with a healthy dose of realism, I believe. I acknowledge many of the things that nations do to protect themselves, and I know things aren't always so pretty. History's full of it. It's my thought, however, that much as the War in Iraq is actually counter-productive in the War on Terror, so too is torture counter-productive when used against certain populations. By utilizing terror tactics, and what's more, ADMITTING to utilizing those tactics, I believe that the US is doing more to engender hostility in otherwise neutral populations than accomplishing good in actually extracting information.

I know you're not going to respond for a little bit, I hope Mexico's treating you well! Bring me back a little hat or something.

-Lil Bro

11:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Outside of the United States, waterboarding is considered torture and a war crime (a brief Google search will confirm this but I will provide specific references on request). There are good reasons for this and I will get to a few shortly.

First, though, consider how this administration has attempted to redefine torture. It is unlike any definition ever asserted by a civilized country and is indefensible. The administration tried to redefine torture, stating that one of the required elements to define a procedure as torture was a procedure that leads to (or has the high potential to lead to) organ failure or death. This attempted redefinition is as stupid as it is morally repugnant. A moment’s thought illuminates its problems. Using this definition, a needle under the fingernails is not torture. Rape is not torture. Burning the skin is not torture.

Obviously, this attempted redefinition won’t do and it lead to a revolt by John McCain, who knows a bit about the topic, Lindsey Graham (a reserve JAG officer), and John Warner. Although they caved on the legislation they proposed (giving Bush the authority to make exceptions), even the weakened bill led to changes. Waterboarding is now explicitly prohibited for use by US military personnel and it takes a Presidential Finding to allow its use (and only by agencies outside of the military). (YouTube has some clips of McCain speaking about waterboarding and how it is unacceptable; there are also clips that demonstrate the various methods of waterboarding.)

Waterboarding is not “psychological stress” – it is designed to terrorize at the most basic biological level and “transcend” cognitive responses. It is one thing to yell, intimidate, threaten, and so on. These are “psychological stresses.” However, waterboarding and similar procedures are designed to eliminate cognitive responses and psychological defenses by putting the poor soul in a condition of the most primitive of biological responses, the will to live. This terror at the biological level is almost impossible to overcome.

Ironically, it is this ability to break through any psychological defenses that makes waterboarding almost worthless as an interrogation procedure. When I say “worthless” I do not ignore that it can be effective in a particular instance. What happens, though, is an old story: at a certain level of torture, the subject will say anything and agree to anything that the subject thinks the torturer wants to hear. (As a lawyer, Ben, you are well aware of false confessions that have been elicited by physical duress far less severe than waterboarding.) As a consequence, you may have good or bad information and chances are, if you collect enough of this kind of information, you will expend critical resources trying to figure out what is what. There are already a few examples on the record (and who knows how many cases not in the public record) of people who gave false information and US intelligence agencies spend mucho resources trying to sort it out.

A simple test is: how would we feel about a procedure if it were carried out on our POWs? The official position of the US military is that it would be a war crime. It is. Unless, of course, the President says otherwise.....

-- Big Daddy

7:40 PM  
Blogger Johnbai3030 said...

Nicely stated Big Daddy.

I think the most offensive part of this shenanigan is Cheney referring to a torture practice as "dunking people in water" like it's something kids do to each other at the pool. If we were simply dunking people, it wouldn't "save lives". It would be the sort of thing that involves throwing a baseball at a target so that your company's CEO gets splashed in the tank. "Saving lives," by Cheney's standards, requires that the method be torturous enough that it compells people to talk. In order for it to be that effective, the torturee has to believe he is about to die. This means the torturer has to hold them under long enough that there is significant risk that they will inhale large quantities of water and there is significant risk that they will die. I believe this does create false testimony, as Big Daddy pointed out. Further, I believe as a therapist that these acts do irrepairable harm to the psyche of both the tortured and the torturer.

Cheney is still the person I'd most like to eliminate from the planet. I see no reason to defend him in any way. This is like Darth Vader saying, "I only cut off his air supply for a few moments, what's the big deal?"

11:37 AM  

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