Posted by on 9 November 2006 at 9:34 pm  Uncategorized
Nov 092006

Although there has been lots of news discussion of the controversial interrogation technique known as “waterboarding”, I never had a clear sense for what it actually entailed until I saw this video, in which Fox News reporter Steve Harrigan volunteered to undergo the procedure.

Here is an article excerpt describing the technique in more detail:

Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

Although it looks like a thoroughly unpleasant fear-inducing experience, it does not appear to cause any kind of permanent physical damage. Nor does the subject ever appear to be at a real risk of drowning.

One standard dictionary definition of “torture” is:

The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.

If one accepts that definition, then I’m not sure that waterboarding quite falls into that category. Because it appears to induce strong reflexive fear response (as opposed to direct pain), it seems different in kind from more “traditional” forms of torture (such as sticking hot pokers into the victim’s body), although there are definitely some similarities as well. And there are also legitimate questions as to the reliability of any information gained by this technique.

Having seen the video, I have no desire to undergo waterboarding. But I’m not sure I would classify that as “torture”, and it may be that we need a different conceptual category for these sorts of techniques.

(Perhaps one analogy would be taking a person with a strong fear of snakes, and putting him in a glass-walled room surrounded by snakes such that he can see the snakes and the snakes can see him, but they can’t actually reach him. Should that be regarded as “torture”?)

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