Sunday, November 4, 2007

Waterboarding as Torture: Getting It Wrong, Getting It Right

As part of its week-in-review political analysis this past Friday, PBS’ The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer had (liberal) syndicated columnist Mark Shields and (conservative) National Review editor Rich Lowry discuss the issue of waterboarding and how it might affect the nomination process of Michael Mukasey for Attorney General. During this discussion, Lowry offered a few arguments in defense of the procedure, including the following:

--Waterboarding is complex: “I think waterboarding is an extremely complex issue, and it would have been irresponsible of Mukasey to pronounce on it before he has fully read into the program and know what it entails.”

--Waterboarding protects our soldiers and operatives: “...banning waterboarding, unfortunately, I don't think is really going to afford our guys much protection when they're caught by those sort of regimes [such as North Korea and al-Qaida] or those sort of terrorists.”

--Waterboarding isn’t really torture: “Journalists are volunteering to be waterboarded to see what it's like. You would not do that with any infamous, obvious torture techniques. Journalists wouldn't volunteer, ‘Please, pull out my fingernail. I'm really curious how that feels.’ And they're only volunteering because it's two minutes of panic. It's a horrifying procedure, but then you walk away.”

--Waterboarding provides us with valuable information: “I think it's a technique that should be used in reserve, that we should have in reserve, in extremely limited circumstances, in cases where you have very high-level al-Qaida officials who might have knowledge of ongoing plots. So you don't have time to deal with them over a period of months and you want to break them quickly, and that's exactly what happened with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [who was one of the top planners behind the 9/11 attacks].”

Watching this, I felt that at best, Lowry was presenting arguments that were naïve and muddled; at worst, he was being disingenuous. Regardless, Malcolm Nance—a counter-terrorism expert who has served as a Master Instructor for the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program—completely dispels the above assumptions in an entry for his blog Small Wars Journal. Compare and contrast the following:

--While Lowry argues that waterboarding is “an extremely complex issue,” Nance finds it to be unequivocally simple: “Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period. There is no way to gloss over it or sugarcoat it. It has no justification outside of its limited role as a training demonstrator.”

--Concerning the issue of whether a ban on waterboarding won’t, in the words of Lowry, “offer our guys much protection” if al-Qaida or a rogue regime captures them, Nance’s argument is the exact opposite: “If you support the use of waterboarding on enemy captives, you support the use of that torture on any future American captives.” The reason why? “According to the President, this is not a torture, so future torturers in other countries now have an American legal basis to perform the acts. Every hostile intelligence agency and terrorist in the world will consider it a viable tool, which can be used with impunity. It has been turned into perfectly acceptable behavior for information finding.”

--Lowry resorts to the oversimplified and misleading argument that because journalists are volunteering to undergo a brief period of waterboarding, it isn’t torture because it isn’t equivocal to having a fingernail pulled out. As Nance points out, it is literally “controlled drowning” or “controlled death” when executed correctly because “[i]ts lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.” Additionally, his detail about the procedure—where water forces the subject’s mouth open and fills the lungs—should leave no doubt about whether or not it represents torture.

--Finally, Lowry’s use of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s confession to justify waterboarding’s usefulness doesn’t fly with Nance: “Of course, when you waterboard you get all the magic answers you want -because remember, the subject will talk. They all talk! Anyone strapped down will say anything, absolutely anything to get the torture to stop. Torture. Does. Not. Work.

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