Monday, September 17, 2007

Are we torturing our troops?
Mike Rappaport

It is commonly said, at least by many left wing critics and others, that waterboarding is torture, both as a legal and moral matter.  Lets assume that is correct.

Now, it is my understanding that many people in the military, including Navy Seals, are waterboarded as part of their training.  If that is true, are we torturing our military personnel?

This is a significant question.  Take paradigmatic forms of torture, such as breaking bones or even severe psychological torture.  I take it people would object to doing that to our troops.  Then why don't they object to waterboarding?

There are a couple of possibilities.  First, waterboarding is not really torture.  It is tough, very unpleasant, but not torture.  Second, it may be OK to torture our troops, it just depends on the type of torture.   And, third, waterboarding  is only torture when done by an enemy, but not when the victim knows that he will not be harmed.

Well, I suppose they are all possible, but I do think that the most likely possibility by far is that waterboarding is not really torture.  The second and third possibilities seem quite weak to me. 

I would fully admit that my facts may be wrong here.  Perhaps Navy Seals are not waterboarded or not waterboarded in the same way that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was.  Or some other discrepancies may be important. But unless that is the case, I do find the argument about waterboarding being torture -- rather than a harsh method which is effective -- quite puzzling.

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Mike Rappaport


I think you may be missing a critical distinction (though you hint at it). Torture, as most understand it, presupposes a lack of consent. Hence, waterboarding enemy combatants against their will may qualify as tortue; waterboarding Navy SEALS who sign up knowing that is in the cards cannot. Of course, there may be some extreme cases where the presence of consent does not preclude a finding of torture, but I can't think of any. Also, lest I be misunderstood, want of consent does not always imply torture. (Waterboarding, as you suggest, may just not be sever enough.)

Posted by: usdgrad | Sep 17, 2007 7:19:17 AM

When I went through Army Basic Training, we had to go through the "gas chamber." We had to walk in a room filled with tear gas, remove our gas masks, and then answer a couple of questions before being allowed to leave. It was Hell. Was it torture?

Nope. I had no fear that I would die. I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. I knew that if I got really sick, I would receive medical treatment. SEALs know the same things when they are water boarded.

I train jiu jitsu. When someone attempts to puts me in a collar choke, I'm not fearful, as I know the choke will be released before any damage will be done. If someone out in the street started choking me, my adrenaline levels would be quite different.

What's done in a controlled environment to a person who knows he won't suffer any long-term harm and who knows the pain will end shortly is much different than what's done to a person who doesn't know what fate will bring. In fact, one element of torture is the element of the unknown. "Will I live or die?" "Will I suffer for minutes or days?" These are terrifying questions to be forced to ask oneself.

These are not difficult distinctions for people to make. It only requires a little bit of intellectual honesty.

Posted by: Intellectual Honesty | Sep 17, 2007 10:05:11 AM

To Intellectual Honesty:

Not making a snarky comment at the end of an otherwise reasoned post is not that difficult. It only requires a little bit of discipline.

Ask yourself why you felt the need to add that line.

For what it is worth, you will see that I mentioned your argument in the post:

"And, third, waterboarding is only torture when done by an enemy, but not when the victim knows that he will not be harmed."

I certainly admit that the two actions differ. The question is how different they are from one another. Also, here is a question I don't the answer to: to what extent, if any, do the detainees who are waterboarded know that they are "merely" being waterboarded? My guess is that "terrorists" know about this stuff, but maybe I am mistaken.

Posted by: Mike Rappaport | Sep 17, 2007 4:24:27 PM

where would sere school fit into this notion.

Posted by: none | Sep 17, 2007 5:30:20 PM

The problem with arguing that, say, waterboarding really isn't so bad is that it implicitly concedes the point that treating captured terrorists "badly" is beyond the pale. Waterboarding is only the beginning: the Red Cross has termed the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo--such as solitary confinement, exposure to persistent loud noise and cold, and the like, but nothing even close to waterboarding--"tantamount to torture". In other words, their definition of "torture" has expanded to mean, "any intentional imposition of discomfort, including for punitive purposes".

Yet these unlawful combatants--putting aside the routine ruthlessness of their own organization towards civilians--callously jeopardized the lives of thousands of civilians by hiding among them out of uniform, in shameless defiance of the Geneva Conventions. The burden is on their defenders to explain why any harsh treatment they receive is not completely warranted--and why their coddling wouldn't simply encourage further flagrant violations of the Conventions by their successors.

As the Midrash says, "one who begins by being merciful to the cruel, ends by being cruel to the merciful."

Posted by: Dan Simon | Sep 17, 2007 10:56:06 PM

one thing to consider is that the SEALS do not use waterboarding as a torture technique, but instead use it to help divers deal with drowning and fear of drowning to prevent divers from dying when in combat.

Posted by: 0000 | Sep 18, 2007 9:12:53 PM