Torture tantrum

"Torture tantrum" Continued...

Issue: "Saving Isaac," Nov. 10, 2007

But, with one attorney general disregarded and another not yet confirmed, making the case that waterboarding is not torture could prove far more difficult in the court of public opinion.

In deep water

Simulated drowning makes prisoners talk-but at what cost?

Waterboarding, an interrogation technique dating back to the 15th century and the Spanish Inquisition, simulates drowning in an effort to cull information from an uncooperative prisoner. The practice involves strapping the captive to a board with eyes blindfolded and feet slightly elevated. Interrogators then shove a rag in the prisoner's mouth and pour water over it until liquid streams down the windpipe and throat, gagging and choking the subject.

An alternate technique uses cellophane to smother the detainee's face, leaving only one breathing hole at the mouth into which water gushes through a hose.

When administered correctly, neither technique produces lasting physical damage. But critics say the psychological harm can reverberate for the remainder of a victim's life.

"The scars of torture are in the mind," said Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books, 2006). "It's the destruction of the human spirit that makes torture so pernicious."

McCoy explained that waterboarding is especially traumatic, given the innate human terror associated with drowning: "We have hard-wired right into our biological systems a fear of drowning. And when you waterboard somebody you tap into that fundamental, psychological fear. It's one of the deepest and most profound psychological fears possible."

Of course, proponents of scare tactics for interrogation purposes consider the depth of fear associated with drowning to be waterboarding's greatest strength. The technique almost invariably yields information-and does so in a matter of seconds. Whether that information proves trustworthy is a different matter. No public empirical data exists to make a definitive case one way or the other.

But the science is in on the long-term impacts of fear-based interrogation practices like waterboarding versus actual physical torture techniques. Metin Basoglu, head of the trauma studies unit at King's College, London, released findings last year that indicate comparable detrimental effects to the human psyche for either approach.

Indeed, victims of waterboarding can endure substantial lifelong anguish. In the case of Eric Lomax, a British army signalman taken prisoner during World War II, the memory left him emotionally crippled for decades. He recounts the trauma in an award-winning memoir, The Railway Man (Vintage, 1996): "Water poured down my windpipe and throat and filled my lungs and stomach. The torrent was unimaginably choking. This is the sensation of drowning, on dry land, on a hot dry afternoon. Your humanity bursts from within you as you gag and choke. I tried very hard to will unconsciousness but no relief came."

Years after that experience, Lomax met with one of his Japanese interrogators, Nagase Takashi, who recounted his recollection of the incident: "With the prisoner screaming and crying 'Mother! Mother!' I muttered to myself, 'Mother, do you know what is happening to your son now?' I still cannot stop shuddering every time I recall that horrible scene."

In a remarkable display of reconciliation, Lomax forgave Takashi. Waterboarding critics like John McCain doubt whether America's enemies will be so gracious.


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