Debate has been raging in congress over waterboarding. This form of interrogation dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. It was used by the Dutch East India Co., the German Gestapo in WWII and the Khmer Rouge. The US military considered it illegal during the Vietnam War, court-martialing soldiers found guilty of supervising the technique in operation.
Waterboarding simulates drowning by using body position and the gag reflex. A wet rag is stuffed in the prisoner’s mouth, a plastic bag placed over his head and his body laid face up or slightly reclined so that his head is lower than his feet. Water is then poured over the prisoner’s head. His body thinks it’s drowning, dying.
It is up to the interrogator how long this lasts, but from all reports, it is a truly terrifying experience. According to an ABC news report, CIA personnel are subjected to waterboarding which lasts on average about 14 seconds. Physical and psychological damage done to the prisoner can be permanent.
As an information gathering tool, torture has never been very effective. While it is possible to get some “actionable” intelligence, it is more likely you will have the prisoner tell you whatever you want to hear to get you to stop the torture.
But all of this misses the point. The debate should not be about whether this technique is effective or not. It should be about whether the U.S. should be torturing people or not. When the FBI discovered that the CIA used this technique on prisoners, they removed themselves from the interrogations. The FBI realized that none of the information gained could legally be used because of how it was obtained.
The use of torture counteracts the American agenda abroad as well. The U.S. operates in Iraq on a principle of befriending the populous. When debating trade issues with China, America’s human rights record is cited. Credibility is lost when torture tactics are employed.
The detainees in Guantanamo Bay are provided neither human rights protection under the law as criminals nor the rights of a prisoner of war. Americans debate whether the detainees deserve the protection of the Geneva Conventions, a series of agreements guaranteeing decent treatment to captured enemies.
Their protection, however, should not be in question. The U.S. signed the conventions; therefore, the U.S. should adhere to them no matter how dishonorable its enemies may be. The question is whether this is a country with a conscience, with a system of beliefs for people to hold to.
The desperation for information or vengeance should not contradict America’s shared values and beliefs. Just because these tortures are perpetrated on foreigners, and possibly some of the nastiest people on the planet, does not justify the CIA’s use of them. Politicians try to satisfy their guilt by using euphemisms such as, “anything is acceptable if it saves an American life.”
I disagree. American principles are more important than individual lives. When Nathan Hale stood to be hanged by the British, he said, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
These men knew the importance of principles and ideas. After all, the war on terror is a war of competing ideals. America loses every time it backs away from its ideals and acts criminally, even if it is done to combat criminals.
I understand the value of intelligence and the stress of the battlefield. I worked in the intelligence industry and spent some of that time in Iraq. I also understand the pain that drives many toward revenge. My father survived Sept. 11, but three of the men at his business meeting in the tower did not. All these aspects hit close to home for me. And yet, I still want to believe in the American ideal: that this is a country of law and order. The United States should be a country that sets an example of tolerance and forward thinking, not of vengeance and blood.
Jason Olivero is studying electrical engineering.