Friday, December 14

Is waterboarding torture?

I just stumbled across this absolutely brilliant film about waterboarding. Kaj Larsen, an ex-soldier, who had to go through waterboarding as part of his training, arranged to do it again, on film. His purpose was to take some of the abstraction out of the debate about whether it should be allowed.

There are a couple of interviews in the film, too, making two perfectly good points. Firstly, Alan Dershowitz, who opposes the use of torture, says that it should be legalised so that it is never done in secret. If it's going to be used, he says — and it inevitably is — he wants the president to sign a torture warrant for every case, so that there's proper accountability. I think he's right about this. It is the whole point of a chain of command, after all.

Then Juliette Kayyem says that the debate about whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture is a pointless argument that misses the point. What the argument should be about, she says, is: here's an interrogation method; this is what it involves; should it be allowed? I think she's right about this, too.

But the truly interesting thing is, of course, the film of the technique itself. It's not pleasant, as you might imagine. Somehow, Larsen puts up with it for twenty-four minutes — testament to how good a soldier he must have been, since we are told that the average person can stand it for about two. The moment I saw it start, it was obvious to me that it was torture. There's simply no way you can describe a practice like that as anything else.

And then something very interesting happens.

It stops.

"You OK?" asks one of the film crew.

"Oh, that sucked," says Larsen. And he laughs.

Now, he seems to be pretty tough, and he has a minute to get his breath back before this exchange. And it's not exactly a joyous laugh of merriment, obviously. But still. The fact that he laughs while describing what he's just gone through puts new doubt in my mind. Part of me thinks that an experience that you can laugh about as soon as it's over perhaps isn't quite as bad as proper torture. It's simply not in the same league as having your thumbs cut off.

My point here is not that I approve of the practice; neither is it that I'm against it. Quite the opposite: having seen first the technique itself and then its immediate aftermath, I simply have absolutely no idea. Fascinating.

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