We are having a heated political discussion in the USA this week wondering if waterboarding is torture or not as Michael Mukasey faces a Senate confirmation hearing on his attorney general nomination — but waterboarding has a long history as part of the human core in antiquity:

Waterboarding is a technique in which prisoners are subjected to simulated drowning by binding them to an inclined board, with their feet raised and head a bit below their feet. Then cellophane or cloth is wrapped over a prisoner’s face and water is poured over the person.

Vietnam 1968: In Da Nang, the U.S. military used waterboarding as an interrogation technique:


Some, like Vice President Cheney, argue waterboarding is a necessary and proven interrogation technique:

Waterboarding dates at least to the Spanish Inquisition, when it was known as the tormenta de toca. It has been used by some of the most cruel dictatorships in modern times, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Here’s a drawing from human rights activists in Chad in 1980
demonstrating the waterboarding technique of military ruler Hissene
Habre — who was subsequently indicted by a Belgian court for torture
and crimes against humanity and faces prosecution in Senegal:

In 1845, and for the next hundred years, waterboarding was commonly used in New York prisons to torture — “The Negro Convict” —

Dec. 18, 1858 Auburn State Prison, New York. The convict,
More, was a negro. He is certified to have been a man of naturally
pleasant temper, but violent when crossed. …he was dragged by main
force, and after many violent struggles, to the shower-bath; all the
water that was in the tank — amounting to from three to five barrels,
the quantity is uncertain — was showered upon him in spite of his
piteous cries; a few minutes after his release from the bath he fell
prostrate, was carried to his cell, and died in five minutes.

In the Middle Ages, waterboarding was called — “The Water Cure” —

Do you think waterboarding is torture?

Or is waterboarding just an unfortunate, but important,
method for extracting information out of unwilling people and an
effective punishment for those who need physical behavior correction?

42 Comments

  1. It is sickening to watch people defend the indefensible, Karvain.

    During tonight’s presidential debates, candidates were asked whether they would support the use of waterboarding — a technique, defined as torture by the Justice Department, that simulates drowning and makes the subject “believe his death is imminent while ideally not causing permanent physical damage.”
    Both former mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) suggested they would support using the technique. Specifically asked about waterboarding, Giuliani said he would allow “every method [interrogators] could think of and I would support them in doing it.” Tancredo later added, “I’m looking for Jack Bauer,” referencing the television character who has used torture techniques such as suffocation and electrocution on prisoners.

    http://thinkprogress.org/2007/05/15/debate-torture/

  2. Hi David!
    I believe any use of force with the intention of making somebody divulge information or recant their beliefs is torture.
    and to condone torture – no matter what the mitigating circumstances may be – is not only immoral but to be willfully insensitive and inconsiderate to the physical and psychological trauma of another individual is to deny the very thing that makes us human.

  3. Dananjay!
    Is waterboarding legal in India?
    I agree that torture — especially waterboarding — only gets people to confess to something that they may or may not have done or know about to stop the pain.
    Have we ever taken any fruitful information away from those being tortured that actually made us safer in the future?
    Or is waterboarding just used to convict those who have sinned in the past?
    When you have senators like Lindsay Graham saying waterboarding is torture:

    On CBS’ Face The Nation this past Sunday, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) commented on Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey’s refusal to classify waterboarding as torture, saying that he is “convinced” the technique “is clearly illegal under domestic and international law.”

    And then recanting the truth of what they know a day later:

    Graham changed his tune yesterday, however, after Mukasey again refused to explicitly say whether he believed the interrogation technique was torture, instead calling it a “hypothetical.”

    You begin to wonder if day is really night and if the world is really flat.
    http://thinkprogress.org/2007/10/31/graham-mukasey-waterboard/

  4. Gordon —
    Wow!
    I vote “yes” on that video being an example of waterboarding — and the fanciful indication of it with glowing lights and fantastical musical accompaniment makes it all the worse as it becomes an acceptable technique to a naive public!
    As well, some might even argue shoving someone’s head repeatedly in a toilet bowl or fill bathtub is waterboarding.

  5. David!
    i wouldn’t know about waterboarding in India because these things are never discussed or debated in a public forum. we’d much rather not know and just accept that those who’ve been given the responsibility of protecting us will do whatever it takes and hopefully be able to live with it. let it be on their heads!
    but in america, in the context of fighting terror, it takes on an interesting aspect, in that how do you support torture (which is after all an ever more vile and vicious form of inflicting terror because it is directed at one particular person who is completely at the state’s mercy) and still maintain that you’re fighting for a better way of life? yes, he may or may not be able to provide information that may or may not save lives in the future, but somewhere in all this haven’t they become the very thing they were fighting?

  6. It looks like torture, it sounds like torture -I suspect it feels like torture, therefore I would say all evidence points to it being torture.
    To those that deny it and support it’s use – could they tell us which part of waterboarding ISN’T torture?

  7. Dananjay! That’s fascinating that you don’t know about Indian waterboarding. Do you live in a democracy or a closed society? Do you have a free press that can write and speak about anything without being criminalized?
    Your point about supporting torture is an important one. If we believe we are free people and that a democracy is the best system of government on earth — why are we even pretending that waterboarding is acceptable? We pretend to fuzz the truth and to help those who do the dark and dirty work protection from prosecution in other countries that would not tolerate such venal behavior.

  8. Nicola!
    Right! Those images in the article all demonstrate the unspeakable to me: Torture.
    Those who claim otherwise say waterboading doesn’t inflict any permanent harm — disputed by those who have been through the process and suffered both physical and psychological damage — because no visible marks are left. It’s no worse, they argue, than placing someone under a bright light to give them the third-degree.

  9. David!
    democracy is a loose term and by itself it doesn’t define anything concrete. in india, as in america, it is what it has become and people have accepted it as such. and right now these things are neither discussed in politics nor debated in the press. bread and circuses! 🙂

  10. Wild, Dananjay! We have the view of India here in the USA as a shining example of the world’s largest democracy in the midst of unfriendly and terrifying neighbors. I guess your system may have as many trips and falls as our version. 😀

  11. It’s a terrible thing, Dananjay, that the mushroom cloud threat is so effective because time, tide and technology will one day guarantee every nation in the world has that capability. And then what? A race to see who can finish the other first? And then what? A thousand years of darkness?

  12. As I look at the world around me now, Dananjay, I see so much hostility and unhappiness across the globe that seems new and vengeful. There is a greater want for power that can destruct and once you run out of enemies, what happens to that craving? It internalizes and begins to chew itself into darkness. I’m not claiming — like many of my religious friends — that we’re in the Last Days, but I do feel human evolution has reached it peak and will no be able to perpetuate forever unless there is a wholesale restart in the next hundred years or so to work the bugs out of the system.

  13. Nicola —
    Morton Kondracke is a conservative journalist and he said this about waterboarding:

    In a Fox News “All-Star” panel discussion, Morton Kondracke said of the interrogation technique known as waterboarding, “I’m sure it feels like torture, you know, it doesn’t result in any lasting damage, but it feels like torture.”
    But a physician who heads a program for torture survivors told a Senate committee that techniques such as waterboarding “are intended to break the prisoners down, to terrify them and cause harm to their psyche, and in so doing result in lasting harmful health consequences.”
    He also said: “There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs.”

    http://mediamatters.org/items/200710310004
    Even in the face of medical evidence contrary to their base position, there are still those who claim torture is just an experience to be lived through and then forgotten.

  14. OK, now I’m going to interject something that will be unpopular – US law.
    The US has no laws that detail what is and what isn’t torture. In point of fact neither does the Geneva Convention or the UN. All the pertinent laws are very vague and nonspecific – using subjective rhetoric like “shocks the conscience.”
    US law also requires any accusation of torture by the government to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in the full context of the situation. This means that the victim is essentially placed on trial as well as the outcome. Basically was the victim unsympathetic enough to “make this OK.”
    There you have it. It ain’t pretty though 🙁

  15. I guess, jonolan, if you believe legality can be determined by those who break moral, social and judicial laws, then waterboarding isn’t torture. I don’t think most rational and moral people, including attorneys!, share that view.
    Those who defend waterboarding are the same sorts who claim mushroom clouds loom in Iran, Hitler is on the rise in all Muslim countries and Iraq had WMDs and deserved invasion.
    Looking back into history for guidance and awareness of waterboarding, we find this:

    Water boarding was designated as illegal by U.S. generals in Vietnam 40 years ago. A photograph that appeared in The Washington Post of a U.S. soldier involved in water boarding a North Vietnamese prisoner in 1968 led to that soldier’s severe punishment.
    “The soldier who participated in water torture in January 1968 was court-martialed within one month after the photos appeared in The Washington Post, and he was drummed out of the Army,” recounted Darius Rejali, a political science professor at Reed College.
    Earlier in 1901, the United States had taken a similar stand against water boarding during the Spanish-American War when an Army major was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for water boarding an insurgent in the Philippines.
    “Even when you’re fighting against belligerents who don’t respect the laws of war, we are obliged to hold the laws of war,” said Rejali. “And water torture is torture.”

    http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Investigation/story?id=1356870
    I don’t put much value in officials who claim waterboarding is legal and not torture when they are trying to prevent prosecution for fomenting that very behavior they are excusing and when the righteousness of history overrules them.

  16. Sadly UCMJ doesn’t apply to the government, only the military. I was only describing current US federal law. It too vague and subjective for the questions being asked of it.
    If you don’t like it, try to get the law changed. But beware, the more specific the law the more loopholes there will be.
    Being wrong doesn’t necessarily equate to being illegal – especially when different sets of law apply to different people.
    BTW: My personal view is that waterboarding is torture.

  17. jonolan!
    Who, if not the military, are waterboarding?
    Blackwater? The State Department? The CIA?
    Exactly. They get around the UCMJ by having civilians do the waterboarding instead. Is that deceitful? Is that unlawful? Is it in the least unseemly and unfair and unconscionable?
    That’s the problem and wiggling around the legality of something that is obviously not allowed — even though it may be undefined — will not win hearts or lawsuits.
    Here’s a bit of a laugh at Dick Cheney’s expense as he attempts to clarify his waterboarding position in 2006 while splitting a baby that refuses to die:
    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2003327472_cheney28.html

  18. “They get around the UCMJ by having civilians do the waterboarding instead. Is that deceitful? Is that unlawful? Is it in the least unseemly and unfair and unconscionable?”
    Deceitful? Yes, perniciously so. Unlawful? Sadly no. Is it in the least unseemly and unfair and unconscionable? I would so say so, but on the point of unconscionable – obviously not to those who do it.
    And this all ignores US laws that have not completely defined whether the President can violate the law in order to perform his sworn duties to protect the Nation. Yes, it is actually unclear under the law if the President even has to follow the law if doing so would hinder him in the execution of his sworn duties.
    What a wonderful thing that! 🙁 Gods, i ned a drink now.

  19. jonolan!
    You are doing an admirable job explaining and defending the Bush administration’s position on waterboarding.
    I just don’t think the matter is as fuzzy as they are trying to make it and time and history will cruelly judge their behavior and claims.

  20. Explaining, YES – defending, NO!
    There is an underlying problem that allows this sort of thing. It is the vague nature of the laws governing such behavior. Much of law was set down during a time of “gentlemen” – certain things “just weren’t done!” so the laws were not thought to need to be that specific. Our founders never took into account that an Administration like the current one would survive long enough to do this sort of thing. Well…all of our founders except Mr. Franklin that is 😉

  21. Well argued, jonolan!
    I agree we’re in an untenable condition right now and the only way out of it is to get some non-partisan political intellectuals in there to calm everything down and to set us right again. I don’t hold much hope for that happening.

  22. So many tend to state that something is illegal because they do not agree with it morally. It is clearly legal, under “international law,” you use nuclear weapons to kill massive numbers of humans. It is better to state that the US should not use water boarding; rather than trying to say that it is illegal.
    yojoe