The Hoover Institution’s strange idea of torture

About a month ago, I watched the Hoover Institution’s Marc Thiessen defend the practice of waterboarding on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. The moderator of the program asked Thiessen what he thought of Christopher Hitchens and his decision to undergo the “enhanced” technique himself in the summer of 2008.

For background information, Hitchens wrote a column on his experience for Vanity Fair in which he declared “…if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Thiessen stated that he did not agree with Hitchens that waterboarding was torture. Interestingly, Thiessen held that the fact that Hitchens underwent waterboarding voluntarily proved that it was not torture. In his own words:

“He [Hitchens] underwent waterboarding to see what it feels like, to prove that it was torture. In so doing, he proved it was not torture. A common sense definition of torture is, if you’re willing to try it to see what it feels like, it’s not torture. If I said to Christopher Hitchens, “I’m going to pull your teeth out with a pliers to see what it feels like, would you try it?” He wouldn’t try it.

This struck me as a particularly odd, and quite frankly bad argument to make for why waterboarding isn’t torture. Thiessen seems to believe that the only objectionable aspect of waterboarding, or any other torture technique, is the level of physical pain inflicted on the victim. No one would volunteer to have their teeth pulled out because it’s far too painful, whereas being waterboarded is seen as a comparatively painless activity to the point where someone is willing to undergo it just for writing material.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it ignores the key differences between Hitchens’s experience and the experience of an actual detainee. Those are: 1) A real detainee does not consent to be waterboarded; 2) A real detainee has no knowledge of the limitations his captors operate under and thus has no assurance he will not drown from the procedure; 3) A real detainee has no power to stop the procedure at any time, a power that Hitchens had when he consented to be waterboarded.

If you think these are irrelevant differences, consider the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex. Surely Mr. Thiessen would not argue that rape cannot be called torture because we can find people willing to have intercourse. That is because what makes rape wrong is not principally the physical pain but the psychological pain, which can persist for years, resulting from the coercive nature of the act and the loss of personal autonomy, neither of which are felt by those who consent to sex.

And there is good evidence that waterboarding produces long-term psychological pain similar to rape. Dr. Allen Keller of the Bellevue/NYU Program for the Survivors of Torture testified to the U.S. Senate in 2007, stating that “Long term effects [of waterboarding] include panic attacks, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. I remind you of the patient I described earlier who would panic and gasp for breath whenever it rained even years after his abuse.”


2 Responses to “The Hoover Institution’s strange idea of torture”

  1. ATurner Says:

    I agree–this dispelled any notion in my mind that water boarding did not fit the legal bill of torture.

  2. Matt Says:

    Anyone can try waterboarding for himself or herself. Stand in a shower with the water running, and put a wet towel over your head and face. Rotate your head back, with your face up to the water stream. Move so that the water is running on your face. It immediately runs throught the towel and into your nose, and then into your mouth and your throat and you reflexively stop breathing. It feels very frightening, and when its gets too much just step out of the water. Try counting slowly and see how long you can stand it. I have made it up to about 70 seconds after some practice, which is about as long as I can usually hold my breath. It is interesting to feel what suffocation is like; as you reach the limit of your ability to hold your breath an overwhelming need to breathe fills every fibre of your awareness. It is awfull, and at that time you can try to guess what it would be like, if someone you couldn’t trust could keep you there. But you can get out of the water and breathe any time you can’t stand it. If you are a skin diver and can hold your breath for several minutes ordinarily, you can beat the time of us ordinary folks, but you will start to suffocate and suffer eventually.

    I think this is not dangerous for normal people, considering the thousands of military folks who have taken SERE training and have functioned normally in their careers and lives, after being warterboarded as a training excercise. I am 78, but I excercise regularly for an hour a day.

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