Thursday, April 30, 2009


Disneyland Torture

Just as there are few poisonous substances, per se, merely poisonous levels of most substances, there are some things, which are not torture at one level, which can become torture above that level. Let's take water as an example of a non poisonous, indeed, a necessary-to-life, substance which can become fatal if too much is ingested. Every few years someone dies from electrolyte dysfunction brought on by drinking gallons of water in a short period of time. That's not to mention drowning either, which will be mentioned below. Let's pick sleep deprivation as an example of things which can become torture with increased duration. Ten seconds of sleep deprivation is barely noticeable mere inconvenience and only an idiot would call it torture. A full night of sleep deprivation is serious inconvenience and no fun, as all parents who have stayed up most the night with a fussy child can attest. Repeated nights of no sleep will have not only a bad effect on the psyche of the person without sleep, he or she will start to dream awake, a process much like what we call the delirium tremens, but a 100 days of no sleep for most individuals could be fatal.

So there comes a time between one night and 100 nights were sleep deprivation becomes severely detrimental to health and no one doubts it would be torture, except maybe the Marquis de Sade. It would difficult to draw the line betwee safe, non torture sleep deprivation nights, and too many sleepless nights constituting torture. I personally think it's about a dozen, but that's just me.

Just so with waterboarding. Dunking a restrained person in water or using a tube to introduce gallons of water up the subject's nose or down his or her throat so that actual drowning is a real possibility sounds a lot like torture. As this was used by the Inquisition and by others, including Japanese citizens during WWII, it almost certainly was torture, especially if it went on and on and on. In Viet Nam, I know that we and our allies would sometimes put a cloth over a restrained person's face and saturate it with water. This would simulate drowning and if done for short duration (less than a minute) and only for a limited number of times (like 6) per day, then the process would not lead to serious or severe problems in the psyche or body and the possibility of actual drowning would be so remote as to be inconsequential. It still wasn't pleasant and often got the subject talking, which is why we and our allies used it.

The recent method of waterboarding we routinely used during SERE training on our own guys, and which we have used against three guys in 2003, involve saran wrap over the face so that there is no possibility of water entering the nose, mouth or lungs and therefore no possibility of actual drowning. It is merely virtual drowning; your body thinks you're drowning even if you rationally know that's not possible. Again, then, the metrics which would change it from harsh, but not torture, into real torture is the duration of the virtual drowning and the number of times it is done in a day.

No harsh treatment we do merely to punish a person is acceptable and indeed harsh interrogation techniques are only allowable in the context of getting actionable intelligence from captured illegal combatants. There would come a time in waterboarding one of those guys when he would talk and nothing further needs to be done (the usual); or when it becomes clear that he can take it without talking and no additional 40 second virtual drowning 6 times a day will produce anything useful. Thus, there will always be an endpoint to it--either he talks or it becomes punishment of someone who will not talk; and we could probably find that endpoint in half a dozen sessions of 40 seconds.

I can hold my breath for 40 seconds and I have no inordinate fear of water or drowning. I believe I could be waterboarded, as the guys in SERE are and the three terrorists were, and be fine. I don't think I could be really tortured and be fine. Real torture, by definition, doesn't leave you fine.

Our President last night said that he thinks waterboarding is torture. If he means the real attempted drowning I agree, but that was not the context. If he means what we did to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, I disagree and I'm right.


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