Let’s pretend that we weren’t having a big political debate about waterboarding. Wipe that clear from your mind.
Now, visualize the process.
Imagine it being done to a U.S. soldier, as part of a systematic pattern of coercive interrogation by an enemy seeking information. Imagine that the waterboarding is not the worst or the best thing done to the soldier during this interrogation.
Let’s imagine that the soldier survives the interrogation and comes back home to talk about it. He says:
It was awful. They beat me. They put metal shards under my fingernails. They threatened to kill me. They held a gun to my head and pulled the trigger, but hadn’t loaded the gun. They tied me to a chair for hours. They blasted music into my room. They strapped me to a board and put a wet cloth in my mouth and poured water over my face. It felt like I was drowning. They whipped me. They burned my body with an open flame. They stripped me naked and flooded the room with cold air. They kept me in isolation for weeks at a time.
It was torture.
Again, wipe clear from your mind the current debate . . . and tell me if you can seriously imagine yourself saying this:
Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on there, pardner! I know most of that sounds like torture — except for the part where they made you feel like you were drowning. That doesn’t sound like torture at all!
I think if you seriously say that you could say that, you haven’t cleared your mind of the current political debate like I asked you to.
Now, imagine a different scenario. This time, one of our soldiers is being waterboarded in the same exact fashion as described above — just waterboarded, not burned or beaten, but just strapped to a board with the wet cloth in the mouth and the water poured over his face.
But it’s done in a controlled environment, with doctors standing by — as part of a training exercise to teach the soldier how he could be treated by the enemy if he is captured.
Has our country “tortured” this soldier?
What if the waterboarded person is a journalist or a government official who voluntarily agrees to be waterboarded — to further a debate about waterboarding, whether in the public square, or in the halls of Washington?
Did the people who waterboarded this volunteer “torture” this person?
Let me ask another question: should these volunteers be prevented from voluntarily experiencing waterboarding? Should a SWAT team swoop in and arrest the people who are being paid to waterboard the volunteer?
I think it’s pretty tough to answer that “yes.” If your answer is yes, then at the very least, you need to understand that your definition of the word “torture” necessarily embraces actions that most Americans would find perfectly acceptable.
Now, if your answer to the first hypothetical is “that sounds like torture to me,” that doesn’t necessarily answer the legal questions that are currently being debated regarding whether waterboarding is torture. I’m not venturing a legal opinion when I say that waterboarding of a soldier by an enemy personally sounds like torture to me. But I have to say that, on a common sense level, it does sound like torture. And that common sense view may well have considerable relevance to the legal question.
If your answer to the second hypothetical is “that doesn’t sound like torture to me,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that what we have done to some suspected terrorists isn’t “torture.” It just means that whether you consider waterboarding “torture” depends on the context.
I think that what we have done to detainees sounds more like the first hypothetical than the second. The only difference is that we are doing it instead of the enemy. Therefore (argue supporters of waterboarding) it must be good to do what we have done — because we did it for a good purpose. When the enemy does it, then it is of course for a bad purpose.
Except that, of course, that’s how the enemy thinks when they do it to our guys. (I’m talking about a hypothetical enemy here, and not Al Qaeda, which actually tortures the daylights out of our guys before beheading them. Don’t think for a second that I am positing a moral equivalence between waterboarding and actions like that.)
And yet, I’m not sure that I am willing to subscribe to a theory of moral equivalence on all levels, because the reason you are doing something matters. It matters a lot. If you shoot me for my money, you are a murderer. If you shoot me because I am pointing a gun at your wife, you are defending her and acting legally. If you shoot an American soldier because you are fighting for Hitler’s right to exterminate the Jews, you are behaving wrongly. If you shoot a German soldier to help prevent the extermination of the Jews, you are behaving correctly.
In all these cases, we are talking about the same act: shooting someone. But we’re doing it for very different reasons.
To both sides of the debate: would it kill you to consider the possibility that waterboarding is torture, but we need it anyway? We shouldn’t be debating whether Khalid Sheik Mohammed was or wasn’t tortured. Instead, let’s debate whether it was better that (1) Khalid Sheik Mohammed be tortured or (2) Library Tower go the way of the World Trade Center. Those are the choices.
Now, that analysis assumes the truth of stories that the Library Tower was saved by waterboarding KSM. Do we know that, for sure? Nah.
But assume it for the sake of argument. And recognize that waterboarding is a fairly mild torture compared to many other forms of torture. It ain’t burning at the stake. And it ain’t what Al Qaeda does.
Do waterboarding opponents really say that they would still oppose it even if it meant losing the Library Tower and thousands of lives?
Try asking them. They will never, ever answer the question. They will instead find a million ways to dodge it. And that’s how you know they are not being serious — even as they tell you that you are not. Because it’s not impossible that it could come to that — and it’s not even impossible that it already has.
I am hesitant to argue for the position that, because we are right, the end justifies any means.
Indeed, I am hesitant to argue any absolutes in this area. I think those who do, often substitute self-righteousness for logic and dispassionate reasoning.
And I’m talking about both sides here.
This has been rather rambling, but I hope it causes both sides to step back and think about their positions.
Being hopeful is not the same as being optimistic. By far the more likely outcome is that we will have a series of comments that disagree, in classic knee-jerk fashion, with whichever parts of this post buck the party line — on either side.
But hey, a guy can hope.
My main point is this: there is nothing simple about this issue. Anyone who claims it is simple is refusing to open their mind.