Those who wish to excuse the actions of this administration or minimize the seriousness of torture sometimes take the tack of trivializing it, making it seem as if opponents of torture are making a big issue out of mere playfulness. Take Rush Limbaugh’s response to a caller on his radio show when the events of Abu Ghraib were revealed.
CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men —
LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?
(Of course, one cannot expect classy behaqvior from the likes of Limbaugh, a truly disgusting person who even mocked and caricatured actor Michael J. Fox for making an ad supporting stem-cell research and Missouri senate candidate Claire McCaskill who supports that research. In the ad, Fox courageously revealed the painful to watch, but unfortunately standard, symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease, but Limbaugh ridiculed him and accused him of faking it. McCaskill won a close race and there is much speculation that Limbaugh’s boorish behavior actually tipped the scales in her favor, since decent people resent ill people being mocked. And when that person is as much-liked as Michael J. Fox, the repugnance against Limbaugh was accentuated.)
But one has a right to expect higher standards of behavior from high government officials. And yet, another revealing episode of how torture gets trivialized was when Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by a radio show host and implied that he approved of the form of torture known as “waterboarding.” This word can mean various things, but none of them are good.
According to wikipedia:
Waterboarding is a type of torture used in coercive interrogations or for punishment. In modern practice it simulates drowning and produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe his or her death is imminent while ideally not causing permanent physical damage.
. . .
The subject is strapped to a board and either tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject then is removed from the water and revived. If deemed necessary, the routine is repeated.
The technique characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a “professional interrogation technique”, involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA’s waterboarding technique as follows:
The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.
Described this way, it sounds terrible. But the sympathetic radio talk show host who interviewed Cheney put the question to him in this softball way. He said that his
listeners had asked him to ”let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves American lives.”
”Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?” Hennen said.
”I do agree,” Cheney replied, according to a transcript of the interview released Wednesday.
. . .
”Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” asked Hennen.
‘It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president ‘for torture.’ We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in,” Cheney replied. “We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.” (my emphasis)
Notice how waterboarding is trivialized by calling it ‘dunking’, making it seem as if it is equivalent to the childhood game of bobbing for apples, or tossing a friend into a swimming pool, or sports teams dousing their winning coach with a cooler of ice water. The Daily Show had a segment on waterboarding which, while humorous, showed both its dangers and the fact that torture rarely yields any accurate or useful information but merely provides an outlet for the sadistic impulses of the torturers.
The Miami Herald naturally reported that the radio interview exchange implied that Cheney had approved of waterboarding.
Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al-Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called “water-boarding,” which creates a sensation of drowning.
Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn’t regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. “It’s a no-brainer for me,” Cheney said at one point in an interview.
Cheney’s comments, in a White House interview on Tuesday with a conservative radio talk show host, appeared to reflect the Bush administration’s view that the president has the constitutional power to do whatever he deems necessary to fight terrorism.
The U.S. Army, senior Republican lawmakers, human rights experts and many experts on the laws of war, however, consider water-boarding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that’s banned by U.S. law and by international treaties that prohibit torture.
When Cheney was naturally denounced for approving torture, his spokesperson tried, as usual, to issue a non-denial denial, saying that what Cheney understood by “dunking” was not waterboarding. But she also refused to say what he had understood by the term.
Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding or endorsed the technique.
“What the vice president was referring to was an interrogation program without torture,” she said. “The vice president never goes into what may or may not be techniques or methods of questioning.”
This strains credulity. Waterboarding has been the torture technique that has received the widest publicity. To imply that the Cheney and the talk show host and the caller all understood ‘dunking’ to mean anything other than that is preposterous. The very fact that Cheney did not ask for a clarification of what ‘dunking’ meant means that he understood what they were talking about.
That the US government has authorized and condoned torture is now undeniable, with more and more reports coming out confirming this. The German media has reported that “German agents saw US interrogators beat a 70-year-old terror suspect with a rifle butt, requiring the man to receive 20 stitches, and that they viewed documents that were smeared with blood,” all of this occurring in secret US prisons in Europe just two weeks after September 11, 2001.
Only the most willfully blind can deny that torture is being carried out in a systematic manner that has been approved at the highest levels of the US government. What the Cheney interview illustrates is that there is a wink-wink attitude towards it, with the administration coyly refusing to give details about what it does and trivializing whatever is known.
It is disgraceful that we have descended to this. What we have is a paranoid administration that puts even the Nixon White House to shame. They seem willing to do anything and say anything that will serve their purpose. They do not seem to care what the laws or the US constitution or international treaties or conventions or just plain basic human decency say about anything.
I have a simple rule about torture or indeed of any action taken by law enforcement authorities: I do not approve of any action that I would oppose if it were done to me or to a loved one. A question that I would ask Cheney (or any other person who condones these methods) is whether he or she would approve of these methods that he finds ‘no-brainers’ being applied to his own spouse or children or siblings or friends or parents.
The passage of the Military Commissions Act by the US government is a good example of the kind of danger that James Madison warned us about:
I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
The Military Commissions Act should be repealed. But given that the Democratic Party is also fundamentally pro-war, I am not hopeful that the new Congress will do so.
POST SCRIPT: Science-religion debate
The cover story of the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine is a debate on the topic “God vs. Science,” featuring Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Both are prominent biologists. The former is an atheist while the latter is a practicing Christian. You can read it here.