Saturday, January 16, 2010

On tear gas and water-boarding

A recent poll indicated that 58% of people were in favor of water-boarding the terrorist who tried to bomb an airplane on Christmas day in order to gain information to help prevent future attacks. This subject has been done to death, but I have a perspective that may add to the discussion.

Water-boarding is one of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the USA used on a few high-profile terrorists. The individual is tied to a board, tilted slightly back, and has some barrier (plastic wrap or a towel) placed over his face, and then water is poured onto the barrier. While this does not cause any actual inhalation of water (if it's done right), it instigates the gag reflex, which in turn instigates panic. It causes no physical damage, and apparently no long-term psychological damage either. Water-boarding is not the same thing as Japanese water torture, where the individual is repeatedly forced to ingest massive amounts of water into his stomach until he's bloated, and then punched or jumped on to make him vomit it back up. There's a scene in the movie To End All Wars where one of the characters undergoes the Japanese water torture, and it's simply not the same thing as water-boarding.

Of course, the issue is whether water-boarding should be classified as torture or not. I'm undecided on this. On the one hand, American military special forces are water-boarded as part of their SERE training, and to say that we torture our own troops as part of their training is extremely counter-intuitive to say the least. Moreover, since all of the individuals who go through SERE are volunteers, it would entail that people are volunteering to be tortured. Can you think of any form of torture, worthy of the name, where most of the people who undergo it are volunteers? On the other hand, it's so unpleasant that it breaks people very quickly. I think most people, myself included, are very disturbed by the idea that there's something that we couldn't handle, something so horrible that we'd do or say anything -- break any promise, betray any allegiance -- to make it stop. How could that not be torture? As a Christian, I'm particularly nervous that there is something so terrible that I would deny Jesus in order to make it stop.

I never went through SERE training, but I was in the Marines and went through boot camp. As part of our training, we had to practice using a gas mask in actual conditions, meaning we walked into a tent filled with tear gas. We took our masks off, then had to put them back on and clear them. Then we all had to take them off and, one by one, yell our ranks, names, platoon numbers, senior drill instructors' names, etc. I was at the end of the line with (I think) about forty people in front of me. That means I took off my gas mask and stood there inhaling tear gas for about two minutes before I had the chance to yell everything. When I finally got out I almost puked.

Now my point in bringing this up is that, as I recall, nearly every group that went into the tent had one or two guys who took one whiff and panicked. They ran out, had to be brought back in, and held down inside the tent, inhaling tear gas. The guy in my group who panicked was pretty tough, and we asked him later why he didn't just stand there and take it like the rest of us. He knew that he wasn't going to be hurt, they went to a lot of trouble explaining that to us beforehand. He said that as soon as he smelled the tear gas, there was only room in his mind for one thought: "I'm dying."

So when they dragged this guy back into the tear gas tent and held him down, were they torturing him? Intuitions may vary, but for me, to call that "torture" diminishes the meaning of the word, and demeans the suffering of those who have been actually tortured. Causing someone to panic just doesn't seem to me to be torture; I think there must be more to it than that in order to be classified as such. But what's the difference between this and water-boarding? Both are very unpleasant physically without actually being painful, and both have the ability to cause panic. As far as I can tell, it's that the percentage of people who panic in the tear gas tent is pretty low, while the percentage of those who panic while being water-boarded is high. But it's hard to see how that's relevant: the question is whether it constitutes torture for the people that it causes to panic. I just don't see how the claim that other people don't have that reaction affects this one way or the other.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm still undecided on whether water-boarding is torture. My problem is that I think something similar -- being forced into the tear gas tent -- is not torture, and I'm unable to think of a significant difference between the two. But I still have the intuition or feeling that something that horrible must be torture. Maybe the fact that I went through the same physical experience as my fellow recruit but didn't panic gives me a distorted perspective on what he went through. I don't know.

Update (20 Jan): Some good comments below. Let me clarify what I'm saying and not saying in this post. I have the feeling, intuition, whatever you want to call it, that something as terrible and effective as water-boarding must be torture. But I also have the feeling, intuition, whatever that if the vast majority of people who experience something do so voluntarily, and if it's something we do to our own troops to train them, it's not torture. Thus, my intuitions conflict. If this were all there is to it, I would probably just ask which intuition is felt more strongly and go with it -- and that would be that water-boarding is torture.

However, this intuition is primarily based on the effect water-boarding has: namely, it breaks the individual quickly. But this is not an appropriate definition of torture for two reasons: First, it would apply to things that are not torture. This is the example I gave of my fellow recruit who was forced to inhale tear gas until he told the drill instructors what they wanted. We could think of a more extreme example, though, to make the point. Say some criminal is caught who is very psychologically fragile and cannot handle confrontation. The police interrogate him by yelling at him and telling him he's going to jail for the rest of his life. He breaks down very quickly and tells them everything they want to know. Is that torture? Obviously not. But it meets the standard that makes me think water-boarding is. Thus, torture cannot be defined this way.

Second, this definition would not apply to things that are torture. I didn't make this point in the post, but an example could be made fairly simply. Take something that everyone, everywhere acknowledges is torture, something no one would have any doubts about. Some poor soul is subjected to it, but he does not break. He never tells his torturers what they want to hear. Is that torture? Obviously. But it doesn't meet the standard that makes me think water-boarding is. Thus, torture cannot be defined this way.

Because of this, I'm suspicious of my intuition that water-boarding is torture. However, I still feel this intuition strongly, and am not ready to give it up. So I'm asking, is there an argument that would demonstrate water-boarding is torture that would do justice to this intuition but does not have the problems listed above? Simply saying it's obvious doesn't go anywhere, because I have the same feeling about it; but it raises the problems I've mentioned.

Some of the comments, my own included, have gone off topic from this point. So this is not the appropriate place to compare water-boarding to what other countries do to their prisoners or what the USA has done in the past (as I did). Nor is it the place to condemn George W. Bush, or the war on terrorism, or American foreign policy. These issues are not what this post is about. I'm not even asking whether water-boarding should be allowed; only whether it should be considered torture. If it is torture, it doesn't follow that it shouldn't be allowed because plenty of people think torturing terrorists is acceptable in certain circumstances (Bill Clinton for example). On the other hand, if it isn't torture, it doesn't follow that there's nothing wrong with it and that it should be allowed.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Of course it's torture; enough with the sophistry.

Jim S. said...

That's not self-evident. You need to support it with argument. Simply asserting it as obvious doesn't work because for many people it's not obvious.

jacob longshore said...

"Enhanced interrogation technique" is good doublespeak. At this instant, torture's like porn to me: I may not have a definition, but I know it when I see it. I have to think it through.

Just because one volunteers for Painful Procedure X doesn't mean it's not torture; it simply means one has consented to be subjected to it. By that logic a performance artist could be electrocuted on stage, and it wouldn't be considered torture. Also, the Chinese water torture would have to be considered a misnomer. I don't think the procedure in itself is a sufficient condition.

What distinguishes waterboarding from the tear-gas training exercise, I think, is the compulsory nature of the context of waterboarding. It has nothing to do with the procedure itself. If some kids were monkeying around home, and they decided to try waterboarding just to see what it's like, I don't think anyone would call it torture. In fact I can't see how it would really be different from the choking game. But if a captured prisoner were strangled to the point of brownout, again and again, that would probably be considered torture. (I don't think that would be recommended for gathering information, though.)

The purpose of the Marine exercises is to get soldiers used to actual war conditions, which is important: I can't imagine how you'd simulate tear gas without employing some. It's physically safe enough that you can put soldiers through that kind of treatment; hopefully the pre-exercise talk will ensure that it's psychologically safe too. Now if the drill sergeant had just dropped the tear gas on you at some inopportune moment without any prep, that might not constitute torture, though it would probably constitute pedagogical form.

Waterboarding is, I've got to say, the invention of some evil genius. It's extremely low-tech, causes no physical harm, and plays on natural reflexes. You can do it anywhere and, with a little practice, work a guy's system for as long as you want. Now that's sophisticated.

One assumption is that pain must be of a certain form. It's not just the sensation of a pinprick or cigarette burn. The spasms of the gag reflex can't exactly be called warm-n-fuzzy. I'm not entirely sure what would be a sufficient definition of pain off the top of my head, and dictionaries don't do it justice, but I do know pain can't be restricted to some particular manifestation.

Another problem I have concerns psychological effects. While there are no scars, I just don't believe waterboarding is free of any lasting psychological damage. It's coercion of the most sophisticated primitiveness. That's bound to have some lasting effect. Besides, how many studies have been done on subjects of waterboarding? If such a psych study were conducted by the US, do you think those subjects would comply?

But just for documentation purposes, here's one article:
http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/02/14/050214fa_fact6

Water-boarding is mentioned on page 5, specifically in connection with the trauma resulting from it.

The Bush administration played the Legal Card the same way any criminal does: if it's legal, it must be OK. The administration protesteth too much. It only means the laws don't account for it. And that amounts to game-playing of the worst sort.

At the end of the day, I can't see it any other way: water-boarding is torture. If the law-books don't reflect it, so much the worse for the law-books.

Jim S. said...

Great comments Jake. I specifically didn't go on from this question to ask whether water-boarding should be allowed because that makes it even more complicated. If it's torture, it doesn't follow it shouldn't be allowed unless torture shouldn't be allowed; and if it's not torture it doesn't follow that it should be allowed (plenty of non-torturing activities shouldn't be allowed, after all).

I don't think the voluntary nature of the tear gas tent does what you want. My whole point was that my fellow recruit didn't have room in his mind for anything but the thought that he was dying. The warnings we were all given beforehand, the fact that he was going into it voluntarily, simply meant nothing. So whether it was compulsory or voluntary amounted to the same thing once he was experiencing it. And the whole question is whether what he experienced in those moments is torture. I have a hard time believing that it was, and not because I went through the same thing, but because just causing someone to panic is not enough for me to call it torture.

But again, I'm very sympathetic with your reaction: "At the end of the day, I can't see it any other way: water-boarding is torture. If the law-books don't reflect it, so much the worse for the law-books." I have the same intuition about it, but I also have other intuitions that point the other way. So I just don't know.

Thomas Snethen said...

If water boarding does not meet the definition of torture, does it meet the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment? Let's leave aside for a moment whether terror suspects should be granted constitutional rights and simply ask whether water boarding is cruel and/or unusual. Is the 8th Amendment a higher or lower standard than "torture"? What makes a punishment cruel and unusual yet not torture? Or are they the same? May we water board domestic criminals? Why or why not? Why are we willing to water board foreign "suspects" known to be innocent yet not domestic terrorists we know are guilty?

To me water boarding is malum in se, period. That it's performed on "volunteers" does not change this.

We are the United States of F-ing America. We don't do this crap to our prisoners. The people who ordered it are war criminals and should be brought up on charges.

Mark Bauer said...

I think torture is defined by its purpose. Torture is more than just inflicting intense pain. Torture is pain coupled with the intent to extract information from a subject. Of course, some torture involves the infliction of intense pain merely for some sick form of pleasure ...

Jim S. said...

Tommy!

As I said to Jake, I'm not asking here whether water-boarding should be allowed, but whether it qualifies as torture.

I'm not sure if water-boarding would meet the standard of cruel and unusual punishment, since it doesn't cause any physical damage. Moreover, the Eighth Amendment only applies to American citizens, not foreign combatants. Plus, the terrorists in question are not actually foreign combatants, they are war criminals who have information about future terrorist attacks.

At any rate, American police forces have done worse to suspects when they thought someone's life was at stake. And contrary to your statement, the USA has done much worse than this to its prisoners in virtually every war we've fought and it was officially approved from the top down. Indeed, if water-boarding is the worst we do, then it's a huge step up from what we've done in the past.

I agree that water-boarding is malum. I think incarceration is as well. It doesn't follow from this that it shouldn't be done. And I do think the fact that it's voluntary raises some huge issues. Again, I'm not arguing that water-boarding isn't torture, I'm saying that I don't know; and I'm not even addressing the issue of whether it should be allowed however we answer that first question.

Jim S. said...

Hi Mark, thanks for your comment.

You make a good point: intent must be involved. When someone suffers terribly due to some natural disaster or at the hand of someone who didn't intend to cause any harm we don't call it torture. So it's not just the suffering of the individual that has to do with whether we call it torture, it has to do with a particular goal in mind by the person holding the tools.

Now this applies to my fellow recruit in the tear gas tent to some extent: he was being held there until he "gave up" certain information (his rank, name, etc.), but it wasn't information he wasn't supposed to give up. The special forces candidate is different: they have information that they're not supposed to give up, and are water-boarded until they do. So this would meet your standard of torture. But again, I have a hard time accepting something as torture which is entered into voluntarily.

Mark Bauer said...

You might also like this. One of the best plainly written articles I've seen on torture. Granted, it deals with the permissibility of torture, not what constitutes torture--but still a good read.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/in-defense-of-torture_b_8993.html

Thomas Snethen said...

they are war criminals who have information about future terrorist attacks

This is factually untrue. We have water boarded people we knew at the time were innocent. To what end? We have also water boarded people we've since released. If they're war criminals, why were they released?

American police forces have done worse to suspects when they thought someone's life was at stake.

Now wait. You already said you weren't sure if water boarding was cruel and unusual. Now you say American police forces have done far worse (I'd love a couple of examples of "far worse"). Wouldn't it follow then that water boarding is neither cruel or unusual? And if this is true, why have we never water boarded domestic terrorists?

Again, I'm not arguing that water-boarding isn't torture, I'm saying that I don't know

When I wrestled, briefly, with the same question, a huge part of me wanted to believe it wasn't torture. I didn't want to believe my country was capable of any cruelty which could be labeled "torture". This, I believe, is why the right fringe of this country still calls it "enhanced interrogation", so we don't have to look ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves by our true name. Torturers. This is also why the cries for impeachment fell on so many deaf ears. We simply could not believe our president could order such things. But he did.

The truth is the truth. We can do as many mental and moral gymnastics as we wish to avoid looking at it but it doesn't change.

Jim S. said...

This is factually untrue. We have water boarded people we knew at the time were innocent.

All the news reports I've read said we only water-boarded three high-profile terrorists, for a total of a few minutes, prior to 2004. At that time a new man was put in charge of Gitmo, who then went to Bush to request that water-boarding be forbidden, and Bush agreed. Who are these innocent people who were water-boarded?

We have also water boarded people we've since released. If they're war criminals, why were they released?

The three people I know were water-boarded have not been released. As for why we've released people when we know they're war criminals, we do it because we're idiots. A large percentage of them go back to terrorist activities. You can't expect the government to be rational or make sense.

Now wait. You already said you weren't sure if water boarding was cruel and unusual. Now you say American police forces have done far worse (I'd love a couple of examples of "far worse"). Wouldn't it follow then that water boarding is neither cruel or unusual?

Not unless the far worse that was done was not cruel and unusual. Some of it was. Police have done things similar to the Japanese water torture in order to make a criminal talk. It was part of "third degree interrogation". At any rate, I'm saying I don't know where the line is drawn, so I don't know whether it should be drawn below water-boarding, between it and the "third degree interrogation" tactics, or above both.

I didn't want to believe my country was capable of any cruelty which could be labeled "torture". This, I believe, is why the right fringe of this country still calls it "enhanced interrogation",

Dude, it's not even remotely the "right fringe" that doesn't call it torture. It's close to the opposite.

so we don't have to look ourselves in the mirror and call ourselves by our true name. Torturers. This is also why the cries for impeachment fell on so many deaf ears. We simply could not believe our president could order such things. But he did.

You're explaining why people are wrong without first demonstrating that they're wrong. And again, virtually all war time Presidents in the past have authorized much worse. Your condemnation would apply to Lincoln and FDR to a much greater degree than to Bush. And I'm unaware of any war time government in history that hasn't done far worse to its prisoners than the USA has. If water-boarding is the worst we did, we stand head and shoulders above every other country. And that's ignoring that when the new head of Gitmo in 2004 requested Bush to forbid water-boarding, Bush agreed.

The truth is the truth. We can do as many mental and moral gymnastics as we wish to avoid looking at it but it doesn't change.

Well of course truth doesn't change. The question is whether it's true that water-boarding is torture. You can say it's self-evident, but the fact that over half of the country disagrees with you shows that it's not, so it has to be supported with argument.

As I've said, I have conflicting intuitions about it. I have the same feelings about it that you do, but I also have feelings about it that go the other way.

Jim S. said...

Read the update on this post before commenting.

Thomas Snethen said...

Say some criminal is caught who is very psychologically fragile and cannot handle confrontation. The police interrogate him by yelling at him and telling him he's going to jail for the rest of his life. He breaks down very quickly and tells them everything they want to know.

In April 2000, I was arrested by the Scottsdale police department in Scottsdale Arizona. I was taken to an unmarked station in the northern part of the city and interrogated for over two hours. During that time, the two interrogators conjured up a reality that had me convinced I was distrusted by neighbors I'd never met. So distrusted, in fact, that these neighbors tracked my every coming and going. They KNEW I was trouble and were waiting for me to screw up. They yelled at me and told me I was going to prison for a long time. They also lied to me. Repeatedly.

I was scared out of my head. No one in my family knew what had happened to me. I'd been denied communication with the outside world. No phone calls. No nothing. And there I was in an unmarked police station being told I was going to prison. Am I psychologically fragile for buying into their reality for even a second, Jim?

I was very fortunate during the interrogation that I had the truth on my side. The truth is I never shot that guy. The truth is, I've never fired a handgun in my life. That's the truth. But interrogations aren't about finding the truth. They're about getting a confession. Period.

If it were legal in this country (and reading your thoughts, it may well be) and instead of ending the interrogation when I asked for representation, say they took me to a room, strapped me to a board, tipped my head back, and started water boarding me, would my subsequent confession change the truth? Would it have made the streets of Scottsdale safer?

My interrogation was handled by two city detectives. A couple of guys who'd been on the streets for a few years and earned their way into their positions. They were, and I assume are, good interrogators. There are thousands just like them all over the country, all trained in the same methods. All trained to get that confession. On the grand scale of interrogators, in fact, I'd guess they were probably average. Maybe a little above. Are they anywhere near the military and CIA guys who've been trained in this stuff? I hope not. I'm hope the military and CIA interrogators are among the best in the world. Several cuts above those two guys I met in Scottsdale. That's my hope.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is certainly the most infamous of the detainees at Guantanamo. From what I've read, military and CIA interrogators were able to get reams of actionable intelligence from the guy during their initial interrogations. But there came a point at which he stopped telling interrogators what they wanted to hear. He may well have been telling the truth, but it wasn't what interrogators wanted to hear. I was caught in the very same predicament. I was telling those two detectives the truth, but it wasn't what the wanted to hear.

It was at this point they broke out the water board. They water boarded him 183 times in March 2003. That's almost six times a day. Why? Was it because he wouldn't tell interrogators what they wanted to hear? Was it fetishism? A little of both?

Clearly there are effective interrogation techniques available which fall well short of physical contact, let alone the water board. I'm living proof.

Jim S. said...

Tommy, you're arguing this from an emotional standpoint instead of a rational standpoint. Of course I remember your ordeal in Arizona -- I think I linked to it when you blogged about it -- but I wasn't thinking of it or referring to it when I wrote this post and these comments.

My point was that a standard interrogation could break someone very quickly. The fact that it could do this does not mean it meets the definition of torture. That's a problem because my feeling that water-boarding does meet that definition is due to the fact that it breaks people quickly.

KSM was not water-boarded on 183 separate occasions; that story was debunked almost as soon as it came out. Rather, he was water-boarded on one occasion lasting only a few minutes, during which they poured 183 drops of water on him. He was not talking beforehand, but he did talk afterward, and the information he gave up was shown to be valid. And again, they've only water-boarded three people, all of whom were higher-ups in al-Qaeda. They were known to be guilty. Obviously it doesn't parallel your situation since you were innocent.

So, let me put this issue completely generically in order to remove the emotion from it: some people (you and I included) have the feeling that action A should be defined as D, because it meets criteria C. However, other things that are clearly D do not meet criteria C; and other things that are clearly not D do meet criteria C. Thus we have to find some reason to justify our claim that action A should be defined as D other than criteria C. I'm asking a philosophical question. I'm subjecting our shared intuition to philosophical analysis. This is not sophistry, I'm genuinely wrestling with this issue.

#John1453 said...

If one cannot argue to a firm conclusion solely on the basis of natural law, or biblical morality, then at least part of the definition of torture must be sociological. That is, what we, or most states, agree or define as torture. This puts America in the wrong since Japanese were prosecuted and punished after WWII for using water treatment (either pouring water on the face, or submerging). The water treatment was then considered a war crime by prosecutors. There is, obviously, differences in severity, and the Japanese beat the prisoners in addition to making them think they were drowning. However, that does not, I would think, take away from the basic inclusion of water treatment (causing someone to believe they are drowning) within the category of prosecutable war crimes. Of course, the winners always get to write the rules.

regards,
#John

Jim S. said...

Hi John, thanks for the comment. I addressed the Japanese water torture in the second paragraph of the post. The water torture that the Japanese used and were prosecuted for was not water-boarding. The US did not prosecute any Japanese for water-boarding POWs.

I think people are confused about this because both have "water" in the title. But this is as inappropriate as conflating the Japanese water torture with the Chinese water torture, which was a form of psychological, not physical, torture.

Moreover, the Japanese were prosecuted for war crimes, and the torture was the smaller part of it -- it's not clear that they would have been put to death if the torture was the only thing they were being charged with.

At any rate, I'm still left with the problem: my intuition that water-boarding should be classified as torture is hugely problematic because it would apply to things that aren't torture, and it wouldn't apply to things that are.

Jim S. said...

Arrrgh! I got distracted again! The point is not whether the US considered water-boarding torture in the past. It doesn't follow from this that it is torture. All this would mean is that the US condemned it when it was to its benefit to do so, and changed their minds about when it was to their benefit to do so. But maybe the US was wrong when they condemned it. Maybe they had good reasons for reversing their stance on it. Simply pointing to American history doesn't answer the question I'm posing.

I just find it impossible not to hear something involving American history that I know to be a misunderstanding and not correcting it. I know that the Japanese water torture was not water-boarding. I will redouble my efforts in the future to stay on topic.