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.”