The U.S. now has an Attorney General, Mr. Michael Mukasey, who does not know if waterboarding is torture. One wonders what else escapes the knowledge of the Mr. Mukasey.
Is he aware that U.S. law forbids the practice of waterboarding, as do numerous international treaties? He has stated that he must withhold judgment on it until he receives more information. Will he continue to ‘withhold judgment’ on this practice, that he himself calls ‘repugnant,’ until some nation starts waterboarding U.S. soldiers? One may well ask why other countries, especially those with whom the U.S. is at war, should hesitate to waterboard their prisoners if the U.S. will not refrain from doing so. The answer is common decency, but with the world’s most powerful nation not demonstrating that trait, one cannot long expect other nations victimized by the United States to exhibit it.
Since this so-called ‘interrogation technique’ has been banned by domestic law, why, one could reasonably wonder, is there any debate about it? The answer is because for some bizarre reason, domestic law does not apply to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and President Bush has refused to say whether or not he has allowed that agency to practice it. At least he is not denying its use, as he originally and vehemently denied the existence of CIA-run prisons in foreign lands that don’t even bother to discuss the morality of torture. Perhaps Mr. Bush can hold his head high with the knowledge that in the U.S., that beacon of peace, freedom and morality, the ethics of whether to torture or not to torture prisoners is discussed publicly in the hallowed halls of Congress. That the debate comes down to a quasi-conclusion of ‘well, it’s probably not all that bad as long as we call it something else’ does not seem to diminish Mr. Bush’s pride in the moral leadership of the United States.
If Mr. Bush, Mr. Mukasey and certainly Vice President Dick Cheney are, if not warm proponents of waterboarding, at least willing to consider its use, it might be helpful to know what the brouhaha is all about.
This particular ‘interrogation method’ is not new. It was very popular during the Italian Inquisition five-hundred years ago and has appeared now and then since. The Japanese used it at least sporadically during World War II, as did U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. More recently the Khmer Rouge used it on prisoners in Cambodia. And following the high moral standards set by Italian, Japanese and Cambodian torturers, the CIA listed waterboarding on its list of approved ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ My, my, what a pretty term!
This ‘enhancement’ involves strapping an individual down face up so he or she is completely immobile, on an inclined board with the person’s feet raised above the head. The victim’s face is covered, sometimes wrapped with cellophane. Sometimes the victim is gagged. The torturer then pours water repeatedly onto the person’s face. This gives the impression of being submerged under waves and the victim believes he or she is drowning. The gag reflex activates as the person involuntarily tries to save him or herself from drowning. The experience, as related by those who have so been tortured, is terrifying.
This tame, academic description does not convey anything close to the enormity of the experience. Some information from the CIA which, for a time, waterboarded some of its employees as part of their training, may be beneficial. Those trainees lasted an average of fourteen seconds before begging to be released. And these were people who knew for a fact that they were not being drowned.
While the CIA will not classify waterboarding as torture, many CIA officials think it is useless because the victim will tell the ‘interrogator’ anything he or she wants to hear in order to stop the torture. In fact, this is one reason why torture is seen as unacceptable; information obtained in this way is generally useless.
As the term ‘waterboarding’ slowly found its way into the American consciousness, some interesting facts about its history were exposed. In 1947 the U.S. charged a Japanese army officer, Yukio Asano, with war crimes for using the technique on an American citizen. He was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. It appears that the U.S. view on waterboarding has changed considerably since that day. Will the U.S. now acquit Mr. Asano posthumously?
So this cruel practice is now, if not acceptable, at least not unacceptable, in the land of the free and the home of the brave. One wonders how long this archaic, savage and barbaric ‘interrogation method’ has been practiced by the United States. One further wonders what other such methods are and have been used since the U.S.’s immoral, illegal and obscene invasion of Iraq. Is it possible that U.S. soldiers have attached electrodes to the genitals of Iraqi prisoners? Have they stripped them and led them around with collars and leashes like dogs? Did they force naked prisoners to form human pyramids, and then photograph themselves standing in front of them, grinning happily? No, such cruel and inhumane behaviors are never tolerated by the United States; military training and shared accountability is such that these and/or similar practices would never occur. Oh wait, one forgets that all those things were perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad. Well, slap a few low-level U.S. military wrists and we’ll forget the whole thing.
Which seems to be just what the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress has done. As they blathered on about Mr. Mukasey’s refusal to term waterboarding torture; as they stood in righteous indignation that the highest law enforcement officer in the country would not endorse U.S. and international law; as they spluttered and dithered and then sought reasons to justify voting for him they apparently forgot not only their mandate, but their duty as well.
Mr. Bush had threatened to appoint an ‘acting’ Attorney General if Mr. Mukasey were not confirmed. Such an appointment would not require Congressional approval. Is Congress so deficient in clout, or perhaps it is spine that it lacks, that this action by the president would stand? Are the members of that governing body so willing to submit to presidential blackmail that they will confirm as the highest law enforcement officer in the country a man who will not support U.S. law that forbids waterboarding?
Mr. Bush, of course, has always bought into the jingoism that he personifies: any measure to protect the corporate interests of the exalted U.S. is justified. After all, this is the U.S., which can operate by different rules than the rest of the world. That seems to be sufficient reason to allow the torture of prisoners; the wiretapping of U.S. citizens; the dismissal of due process; restrictions on the rights to free speech and assembly, and a host of other measures Mr. Bush has taken in the name of freedom. One must give him credit: he has somehow caused Congress to interpret ‘supporting the troops’ as continuing the war for them, and equally as bizarre he has convinced them and many U.S. citizens that the best way for them to keep the rights of which they are so proud is to surrender them.
One naively looks to the next presidential election for some significant change. This will only mirror the disappointment of the last Congressional election that swept the war-mongering Republicans from office and replaced them with the war-tolerating Democrats. It took many years for the U.S. to learn important lessons from the mistakes of Vietnam, and not so many for them to forget them all. The confirmation of an Attorney General who condones torture is the latest in the U.S.’s long history of disgraceful injustice.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.‘