The Joy of Waterboarding

Think for a moment: on September 10, 2001, would the thought have ever crossed your mind that six years later presidential candidates would be arguing about whether the United States should or should not torture people? No, the mere thought was preposterous. Times have changed.

It now seems clear that the U.S. has, at the very least, used a technique called waterboarding on at least two captured terrorists. Depending who you listen to, the information thus elicited either saved lives or was totally useless.

Be that as it may, there has been much discussion on whether waterboarding does or does not qualify as "torture." The Bush Administration is no help in this regard. They tell us a) the U.S. does not torture while b) simultaneously refusing to define what they consider to be acts of torture.

The first inclination of many Americans is along the lines of "whatever it takes to keep us safe" without giving much thought to the details. A few actually relish the idea of bringing pain to our enemies and want to get even tougher. We have been told by people up to and including Vice President Cheney that waterboarding is no worse than a dip in the backyard pool. They point out that our own military forces use waterboarding as a training tool. Therefore it must not be torture, they say, curiously forgetting that our military trains people to face it precisely because it is torture. Mark Shea explains:

Here's the deal: have you ever had an experience of being dunked when you weren't ready for it as a teenager? Ever wrestle as a kid and have somebody cut off your wind for half a second? Remember the panic when you needed to breathe and couldn't?

Now: You are strapped to a board spread-eagle. You already can't breath too deeply in this position. The board is tipped back into a dunk tank and you are head down in the water. The water runs into your sinuses unless you breathe out through your nose. But breathing out means you can't hold your breathe for long. You feel the urge to breathe but you mustn't. Your whole body begins to flex in panic and terror. Your knotted fists bang ineffectually on the board. But the people doing this are not trainers. They are Professionals. They aren't waiting for you to say, "Okay guys, I get the idea of what it's like, You can take me out now!"

They are waiting for your lungs to feel as though they will burst, for the moment *past* the moment of supreme horror when your autonomic system kicks in and you inhale--and gag on--a lungful of water, when you would scream if there were any air in your lungs, when you start to black out.

Then, they pull you from the water, pound on your chest, and bring you too, coughing and retching and more terrified than you have ever been in your life. You have five seconds to start talking--even if you have nothing to say.

And then it all starts again.

And people in these comfy comboxes and elsewhere in cyberspace and on the Rubbber Hose Right (not to mention in the office of the Vice President) have the *gall* to say "That does not rise to the level of torture."

A second and a half of not being able to reach the surface of the lake when I was a kid is still the stuff of nightmares decades later. Those who pretend waterboarding is not torture are either so out of touch with reality that they should not be allowed to operate heavy machinery or they are moral imbeciles.

The group of those who think waterboarding is just fine includes Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Tom Tancredo, all of whom want to be Your President and all of whom promise not to torture anyone as long as they get to decide what constitutes "torture." They also promise to do whatever is only to really bad guys. If one of them makes it to the Oval Office look for the definition of "really bad" to expand greatly. It may even include you.

These definitional games are a distraction from the real issue: if the only way we can defeat the enemy is to become the enemy, we have already lost the war. The U.S. somehow managed to win World War II without torturing German or Japanese prisoners. Even today the professional interrogators say torture is useless and even counterproductive in getting information from prisoners. If there really is a "ticking bomb" someplace, there is no reason to think that torturing a prisoner (assuming you have one, and assuming your prisoner has knowledge that will help before it's too late) will prevent the bomb from going off. More likely it will send the authorities off on tangents while the real bomb ticks down to zero.

Yet whether waterboarding or any other technique yields tangible results is morally irrelevant. An intrinsically evil act does not become good merely by virtue of positive consequences. Torture supporters who claim to be Christians also have to deal with some decidedly inconvenient scriptures:

Matthew 5: 43-45 You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

Luke 6:35-36 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Romans 12: 19-21 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Admittedly, these are hard teachings to accept when you are dealing with evil people who want to harm you and your loved ones. They are, nonetheless, what the Lord demands of us.

Now it is true that Christ did not explicitly tell us "don't torture people." This is probably because it is patently obvious, to everyone except Dick Cheney, that that we cannot reconcile things like waterboarding with the command to love our enemies and overcome evil with good.

As noted above, most people haven't thought through this very deeply and their initial response is that anything goes if it will protect us from "those animals." But we aren't torturing animals. We're doing it to people, human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Calling them animals is simply a way to avoid admitting this inconvenient truth, just as Jews in Nazi Germany were designated as "subhuman" and babies in the womb are, right now, called "fetuses" by those who wish to "terminate" them. It's not killing, you see, if there is no person involved.

Do you really want your country to start down this road? I don't. I also want to be safe from those who would like to attack us. Even more, though, I want to live in a nation that stands for something; a nation that is worth defending; a land of the free and a home of the brave.

Torture does not require bravery. It is, in fact, a cowardly and evil act that brings nothing but pain on both sides. For the prisoner, the pain is immediate. For the torturer and his enablers, it comes later. But it will come.

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