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.