The honeymoon is over

Waterboarding a prisoner 

Apparently U.S. attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey is having trouble figuring out if water boarding is a form of torture. As he recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee:

I don’t think that I can responsibly talk about any technique here because — (pause) — of the very — I’m not going to discuss and I should not — I’m sorry I can’t discuss, and I think it would be irresponsible of me to discuss particular techniques with which I am not familiar when there are people who are using coercive techniques and who are being authorized to use coercive techniques. And for me to say something that is going to put their careers or freedom at risk simply because I want to be congenial, I don’t think it would be responsible of me to do that.

Like the nominee, are you “not familiar with” water boarding as a coercive technique? It’s the sixth of a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques” instituted by the CIA in early 2002. As described to ABC News in 2005 by current and former intelligence officers, these are:

1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

To clarify his thinking, Mukasey should read Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman at Balkinization, who writes:

Waterboarding is a paradigmatic example of torture. It is inconceivable that anyone involved in drafting, negotiating, signing, ratifying or enacting the Torture Act or Common Article 3 would have thought otherwise. Naturally, then, the U.S. itself has long considered waterboarding to be torture and a war crime — there was no dispute about this from at least 1901 until 2002 — and if our enemies used such a technique on U.S. military personnel, no one would, in public debate, deny that such a technique is a form of unlawful torture.

As the U.S. administration and its cabinet nominees retreat into the most hair-splitting forms of legalism and moral relativism in order to preserve the use of these techniques, and thus too the country’s growing international profile as a torture state, both the American news media and consumer television are starting to acknowledge that there is a serious issue to be dealt with here. To focus on TV, the most recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,Harm“, grapples with the issue of U.S. military torture in Iraq, including the long-term psychological and physiological damage caused by “enhanced interrogation” techniques like hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and hypothermia. A remarkably timely bonus is that the plot also revolves around an ethically-challenged private military company (that’s “mercenary outfit” to you).

For its part, ER last season (in “The Honeymoon is Over“) introduced a patient who suffers badly from post-traumatic stress disorder and is addicted to codeine. It emerges that he was a translator for Army intelligence in Iraq, and that he has witnessed countless acts of torture; he is now haunted by the detainees’ cries of innocence which he was required to translate.

Kyle: “‘Please don’t hurt me. I’ve done nothing wrong. God have mercy.’ I must have translated that a million times in Iraq, man. It didn’t matter. They didn’t listen to me any more than they listened to prisoners.”

There’s something good, something hopeful, in this as yet small trend — an expression of the civilized part of the American soul, perhaps, stirring itself after a long and fevered sleep. I desperately hope it continues to grow, because the more the American public is confronted with the reality of government-administered torture, the less it will be able to avoid choosing sides in the debate.

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Filed under Film & TV, Foreign Affairs

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