Commentary Magazine


Scary Reasoning

Last week, several lawyers affiliated with the Federalist Society participated in a conference call in which they challenged the notion that waterboarding amounts to torture. The lawyers stated that since the military has waterboarded over 26,000 of our personnel as part of its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, waterboarding cannot constitute torture.

Disagreement with this mode of reasoning is encapsulated in a recent NPR story quoting a scientist who studied the effects of waterboarding on soldiers. He says that one cannot compare the psychological effect of SERE training with the tactic that was used aganist Al-Qaeda terrorists because our soldiers had the ability to “stop the process at any point” whereas the three high-level Al-Qaeda detainees whom the CIA waterboarded didn’t have that luxury.

Isn’t that the point?

The purpose of interrogation is to get information, and the purpose of the interrogations now under such virulent attack was to obtain information that, if acquired, would save (and, at least according to Michael Hayden, Michael Mukasey, and Dennis Blair, did save) American lives. For such interrogations to prove effective, it is necessary that they entail a level of coercion so that the person undergoing interrogation cannot simply demand a stop to it and call in his lawyer (as criminal defendants in the United States have the right to do during even the most fearsome good cop/bad cop routines). Focusing on fear is what distinguishes “enhanced interrogation” techniques from outright torture — things like drilling holes in kneecaps or pulling out fingernails — the effects of which are far worse than mere apprehension.

Let’s assume that waterboarding, as practiced on the three high-level al-Qaeda detainees by the CIA, does, however, produce “negative psychological repercussions,” in the words of NPR. A lifetime jail sentence, which any terrorist wanted by the United States should feel lucky to have, would also carry “negative psychological repercussions,” but that doesn’t mean we release terrorists onto the streets out of concern for their emotional well-being. There are more important things than the mental health of Abu Zubaydah and Khaled Sheikh-Mohammed. Risking these thugs’s psychological state is a price we should be willing to pay, albeit sparingly, if it’s required to save innocent American lives.

Waterboarding does not instill fear of imminent death (as KSM probably figured out around the 4th or 5th time he endured it), which makes the difference between these two scenarios — the difference, ultimately, that distinguishes the training that soldiers voluntarily undergo from the “torture” that the CIA used to extract information – the imposition of fear. It says something absurd about the “torture” debate that scaring terrorists, in the cause of saving American lives, is now considered not only out of legal bounds, but on par with the behavior of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.