Friday, October 20, 2006

More on Waterboarding

After my recent link to a video of waterboarding, I got an email from a Harvard Law classmate with some thoughts:
Stuart -- Just read your comment on waterboarding. I can't help but mention the fact that waterboarding's presence as an integral part of US military training has been completely ignored (as far as I can tell) in the discussion of this practice. I have many, many friends that were waterboarded as part of the POW resistance training program the USMC used in the mid-nineties. (I was not subjected to it becase as a line infantry officer, I was not thought a likely candidate for being taken prisoner; when things go badly, line infantry officers generally die instead of getting taken prisoner. However, anyone who was expected to operate behind enemy lines, like pilots and reconnaissance types, had to go through the training.)

In fact, our classmate ________ (who you probably know [Yes.]) waterboarded himself when he was working on the Church report on interrogation techniques; he concluded that he would talk immediately, as has everyone I have known who has undergone this treatment. This highlights one of the amazing things about waterboarding: it is basically impossible to resist, yet does no lasting damage (as opposed to, say, pulling out someone's fingernails), assuming it's administered correctly.
I emailed my classmate back with some concerns, and here are his responses:
I would respond by saying that we don't shoot troops in the kneecaps in training, we don't use thumbscrews in training and we don't pull out people's fingernails in training. Why is that? Because those treatments all do lasting damage to the recipient. On the other hand, US military POW resistance training routinely uses sleep deprivation, temperature change, and waterboarding. The reason these get used is because even though they can be highly, highly unpleasant, they don't do any lasting damage to the recipient. They all also seem to have very positive results in getting people to talk. Waterboarding is unique because it works so quickly, so in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, it's especially valuable. But I don't see a meaningful distinction between waterboarding and sleep dep/ temperature change (anyone who has been seriously sleep deprived, e.g. Darkness at Noon, or experienced real cold, knows how unpleasant that treatment can be). I look at it as our military does this in a controlled, highly thought-out manner to our own troops, and doesn't consider it treatment that your average 23-year-old Marine can't handle; why would we see it as treatment that your average insurgent can't handle?

* * *

Also, I should note that I am not 100% sold on the coercive techniques outlined above, but it is striking to me that among all the media horror about waterboarding, it seems to have been totally ignored that we do this to our own troops all the time.

You also asked about an innocent guy who would say anything to make it stop. That's a problem, no question. I think in order to use any of these techniques you would have to meet some threshold for believing that the person had crucial information. That's why it's essential that this all be done in an out-in-the-open, highly thoughtful way, and not in the sub-rosa way that the McCain approach ("we'll make these techniques illegal, but we won't charge people who use them in really important times") would encourage. When people can put their heads together and determine whether someone is of a level that warrants this treatment, it will decrease (but not eliminate) the chances of innocents being waterboarded.


Blogger SMGalbraith said...

Yes but...

As has been noted many times, one of the more powerful arguments against this type of treatment is that the question of what this does to us is almost as important a question as to what it does to the prisoner/detainee.

The great evil in the world is the willingness to treat human as a means and not as a complete end. We deny them this humanity by viewing them as a object or a means towards something else. Once we treat humans as a means, we strip them of them humanity.

And we lose our humanity as well.

I don't know what the answer is. I mostly agree that this type of coercive treatment can be done. Or should be done. But it makes me terribly uneasy.

Yes, as Reinhold Neihbuhr pointed out, the world is a compromised one. Moral ambiguities surround us and confront us every day, both small and large.

But still...

2:30 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

"We lose our humanity...." How self important and preachy.

3:41 AM  

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