17 February 2008

National Review Downplays Waterboarding

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[B]etter for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul ... should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
--John Henry Cardinal Newman

It's a disappointing but predictable position from a magazine that long ago lost its originality and now just tows the party line:
Waterboarding is an extremely rough interrogation tactic in which a detainee is tied down and made to fear imminent drowning. It treads close to the legal line of torture. It does not, however, appear to cross that line — at least not clearly. “Torture” is a special legal designation, reserved for especially sadistic forms of abuse, practices so heinous they stand apart, even from other cruelties, as meriting extraordinary condemnation. Though highly unpleasant, it is doubtful that waterboarding involves the type of severe, prolonged anguish required before a tactic meets the legal threshold of torture.
In the end, NR simply recommends we drop the subject altogether:
Congress should either give us an honest debate about what interrogation tactics should be proscribed or, better still, drop the subject. Waterboarding should not be part of the regular interrogation menu, and there is no reason to believe it is. But unless we’re prepared to say it should never be on the menu, no matter how dire the threat, we should stop talking about it.
Some of us are indeed prepared to say that, including CIA officials who oversaw its use. NR is incorrect when it states the detainee is "made to fear imminent drowning"; he is drowning. Malcolm Nance, advisor on terrorism to the Departments of Homeland Security, Special Operations, and Intelligence, who underwent the procedure as part of his military training and has seen it done on hundreds, has publicly denounced the practice unequivocally as torture. He describes his experience thus:
As a former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego, I know the waterboard personally and intimately. Our staff was required to undergo the waterboard at its fullest. I was no exception.
...
Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

How much of this the victim is to endure depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs that show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration. Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia - meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.

The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again. Call it "Chinese water torture," "the barrel," or "the waterfall." It is all the same.
Meanwhile, while this debate rages, Jack Bauer's popularity grows. The cult hero of the popular Fox series 24, he is known for his tough guy tactics against terrorists, routinely torturing and executing the bad guys in each one-hour show. He is now a role model for American soldiers:
Army Brigadier Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, let producers and writers know that the show exerted a strong and noxious influence over his students. The newest recruits have been watching Jack Bauer since they were 14. The general told Mayer, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.” One former Army interrogator related how soldiers in Iraq watch DVDs of the show and then try to imitate Bauer’s interrogation methods on their own prisoners.
As a Catholic, it's rather simple for me: one may never do evil in order to bring about good. (That's not to say anyone placed in a ticking-time bomb scenario faces an easy choice; he is met with a thousand temptations to justify the use of torture.) The "end justifies the means" philosophy finds no place in Catholic teaching, and thus it is especially disturbing when conservative Catholics, more in love with their political ideology than their faith, justify the use of torture. The justification, of course, is to save lives; but according to Christ, physical death is not the worst that can happen to one. Rather, the death of the soul is above all to be feared, eternal separation from God. According to Catholic teaching, torture is an intrinsically evil act (no matter what "good" it brings). If we think saving lives at all costs is the ultimate goal, even at the cost of losing our own souls, then we have misunderstood Christ's teachings.

Catholics still convinced "the end justifies the means" would do well to remember Caiaphas used that same reasoning to rationalize the death of Jesus: "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." --John 11:50
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