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Hitchens’ Worthwhile Treatment of Waterboarding

Christopher Hitchens has written a quintessentially Hitchens article in Vanity Fair. He decided he wanted to learn about the issue of waterboarding – so Hitchens, now 59 years old, traveled to North Carolina in order to be waterboarded. There are not many of us who take our research that seriously.

The result is a fascinating piece that describes waterboarding in a vivid and unforgettable manner.

It isn’t a pretty or happy experience.

Hitchens ultimately comes out against waterboarding and judges it to be torture, and he offers, as is his wont, some very persuasive reasons for his conclusion. There are certainly strong moral and utilitarian reasons to oppose waterboarding. But in the course of his piece, Hitchens does us the service of stating the strongest case for each side. And the case on behalf of those who hold views different than his is expressed this way:

The team who agreed to give me a hard time in the woods of North Carolina belong to a highly honorable group. This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.

What a welcome change in tone and argument from some of the more hysterical critics of the Bush Administration.

Hitchens includes an equally strong counter-argument, courtesy of Malcolm Nance, author of The Terrorists of Iraq and someone involved in the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training since 1997.

Hitchens concludes his article this way:

Which returns us to my starting point, about the distinction between training for something and training to resist it. One used to be told-and surely with truth-that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

Hitchens may well be right; he captures the dilemma of the issue that many of us share. Regardless of what one concludes, Hitchens’s article and experience are certainly worth considering.



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