APRIL 29, 2009 3:56PM

Torture: 'Do Unto Others', Remember?

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Over the last week or so, there's been a lot of discussion about whether or not waterboarding constitutes a form of torture. Examples of lively--if not exactly useful--dialogues can be found here and here. Although any form of waterboarding has been considered a war crime both during the Second World War and in Vietnam (see also here) (US soldiers in Vietnam were brought to courts-martial, no less, for inflicting this on prisoners), I find it fascinating how many people, mainly on the right, are still trying to find ways to justify the use of this "enhanced interrogation technique". Some examples:

  • People who are waterboarded usually recover in about 10 minutes. Except the 'people' here are the US Special Forces  who experience this as part of their training for the SERE program. It should be noted that this enhanced technique  is done in a controlled environment, where the trainee knows that it's only for training, and that if he or she is in  distress the trainers will stop immediately. A prisoner has no such knowledge. I personally doubt anyone would be able to  recover in 10 minutes if they were waterboarded 20 times in a row until they lost consciousness from oxygen deprivation after each run.


  • These terrorists are so evil ('mjkoch' at Salon labels them as murderers without remorse) that they deserve to be  tortured. Oops, I mean served with enhanced interrogation techniques. This of course leaves out the small yet  salient caveat that the potential terrorists the US 'arrested' might actually be innocent. Many guests of Guantánamo ended  up in Cuba just because they were at the wrong place and wrong time.


  • According to one OS member, "…Waterboarding was the Japanese soldiers' idea of being human." Waterboarding might have indeed been 'gentle' compared to the other atrocities the Japanese committed during the Second  World War. We well know that Japanese soldiers committed much more despicable acts of torture at the time, but please note  that waterboarding was also prosecuted as a war crime at the end of WWII. And seriously, even if waterboarding was 'mild'  compared to other torture techniques the Japanese employed, does that really make it okay? I'm also wondering whether Mr.  Ernest A. Canning would agree with the 'humanity' of what was done his father. 


  • The so-called 'Ticking Bomb Scenario'. This is popular on 24, where the entirely fictional Jack Bauer is  consistently being forced to poison, electrocute and beat people to make them tell him where the threat of the week is  minutes before it goes off. Of course, 24 is a TV show. It's doubtful this would work in reality, even if such an  unlikely scenario ever actually happened. Besides, if after all the investigative work they're down to the wire and still  don't know where or what the threat is, it's probably too late and we're all screwed anyway.

For those interested in a demonstration, see how long this journalist lasted when he volunteered to be waterboarded. And remember that this was done in a controlled environment. 

The truth of the matter is that all these discussions about what constitutes torture or not and why we need to use it just make Americans (I include myself here, since I am one as well) look like a bunch of bullies.


No one likes bullies much. These days, the US Department of State has the following advice for Americans going abroad on its website: "As much as possible, avoid luggage tags, dress and behavior that may identify you as an American." As far as I know, no other developed countries recommend their citizens hide their nationality. Nowhere on the Canadian Government website do they recommend not putting a Canadian flag on your backpack (as shown below).* At what point will it be impossible for Americans to travel outside the US? The election of Barack Obama may have helped improve our image abroad, but we have a long road ahead to restore it to a level were Americans could travel the world freely.   



 Picture taken by Yamica



Seeing comments like the ones I listed above, I fear we are going down a very wrong path. What people need to remember--what people need to keep in mind all the time--is that Americans are torturing human beings. It doesn't matter how we spin it, it doesn't matter how we justify it, this is what it is, and this is what we are doing. America is better than that. We are better than that. And it's about time we started acting like it.


* For those interested, this website used to provide clothes and other items for Americans who would like to pass themselves as Canadians; it looks like the store no longer sells these products. Perhaps Roots Canada could be a good substitute.


I would like to thank Rat4Cat and Taste_is_Sweet (my darling wife) for their input.

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I imagine that torture in one form or another has existed ever since humans have had enough brains to conceive of it. I imagine that there is something in our nature that causes us to like inflicting pain on others who we perceive have wronged us.
Sure, it's easier to imagine those uncivilized Arabs torturing, but I suspect that what we westerners perceive as our more civilized society is just a patina of civility. In fact, because we have a relatively good life going here we don't want to screw it up, and instead we project our darker instincts (such as our desire to inflict pain) onto a convenient target or collective - namely the military, and then standby while they do the dirty work. This allows us to express moral outrage while simultaneously, on a deeper level to to vicariously satisfy some unconscious itch.
A really good essay. Thanks for posting this.
fins2theleft: Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that inflecting pain on others has always existed.

Dennis: Thank you. Hopefully, this post will be read more often than it is now.

BBE: Thanks for the link. I find it very puzzling that we prosecuted our own people (a civilian in this case), yet, we allowed waterboarding to be a formal policy. According to the press conference last night, Barack considers waterboarding torture. Go figure.
I noticed this newspaper article, published last week, that is highly relevant to the topic under discussion:

At the heart of the debate is whether the CIA techniques produced useful information from detainees such as Abu Zubaydah, a senior Al Qaeda operative who was waterboarded 83 times in Aug 2002.

Breaking a seven-year silence, Ali Soufan, the former chief FBI interrogator who questioned Abu Zubaydah for three months before he was handed to the CIA, has flatly contradicted Mr Cheney, saying that no additional "actionable intelligence" was gained from the extreme tactics.

Tellingly, the JPRA document asserted that "upwards of 90 per cent" of interrogations achieved their goals by establishing a rapport with the captive, rather than by imposing duress.

CIA ignored warnings from US soldiers that torture and extreme stress would not work
A good article. Thank you publishing this.

"it's easier to imagine those uncivilized Arabs torturing"

Do you really think that Arabs are uncivilized compared to Americans?

I can easily imagine Americans torturing, because they have got already a long track record of cruel wars. The recent civilization of America is as well very short and Americans maybe haven't learned yet that with torturing you cannot get any real knowledge.

Arabs and Afghans (who are not Arabs), Iranians (who are not Arabs) and especially people from Iraq and other Arab countries have got extreme long lived civilizations compared to Americans and they might not be so much fond of torturing as rather uncivilized people like Americans.

Torturing is criminal according to the international laws and according to the laws of United States. People who have committed such crimes should of course get prosecuted according to the laws.
Hannu Virtanen: Thank you for your comments. You raised a very good point about the long history related to middle-eastern countries. Please note that the quote about uncivilized Arabs is from the first person who posted a comment!
"Please note that the quote about uncivilized Arabs is from the first person who posted a comment!"

Yes, I saw it. It is common in other places, too to think that her/his own place has got the most civilized and best people of the world.

In reality the world is big and most of the other places have got much longer unbroken histories of civilizations than America. We Europeans and Americans have got nowadays more technologies than some other people, but that doesn't make us better 'civilized' than people who have got thousands of years long almost unbroken traditions how to live in this world.

I'm myself coming from a place, where the common knowledge is that present peoples' ancestors lived already 9000 years ago in the same area.
Hey Annu: Thanks! Indeed, we often think of ourselves as better than others. I can attest to this way of seeing things having lived in two countries (people in both places think this way). It is true that other parts of the world have a far richer history and we should capitalize on this history to improve our own society. However, when topics get very emotional, such as this one, some people quickly overlook other countries experiences and knowledge.