Waterboarding. It’s not torture! Are you sure?

Christopher Hitchens is a man who I find profoundly irritating most of the time. He has perfected the art of arrogance to the level that even when he is saying something I agree with (It’s about 50:50), I still mostly want him to shut up. He has frequently been an apologist for Bush’s interventionist policies, and the ensuing misery that perpetuates from them. However he is nothing if not a complicated man, and he was recently willing to put himself through something pretty unpleasant for a piece in Vanity Fair. I hope his experience, and his conclusions, will inform his future pronouncements.

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer. I still feel ashamed when I think about it. Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

If waterboarding is neither torture nor bad nor dangerous, then any public official that supports it should be willing to go through a similar experience to Mr Hitchens. As he pointed out himself, with a safe word and knowing he’d be tucked up in his own bed at the end of the day, it only hints at the awfulness that the real thing must offer after days of sleep deprivation, casual brutality, and not knowing when or if you’d ever see your family again, let alone a lawyer. If an official refuses to try it out (as they would if they have any sense), surely that is an admission that it is dangerous and cruel, and thus illegal.

That was depressing. Let’s end with a song!

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