Waterboarding: Drowning for justice

Waterboarding: Drowning for justice November 9, 2007
It’s a slam dunk

Last week, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Federal judge Michael Mukasey, the latest nominee for Attorney General, refused to define the technique known as “waterboarding” as torture. Though this would appear unbecoming of anyone meant to uphold justice, it still seems likely that he will be confirmed by the Senate. The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Mukasey on November 6.

So why would anyone, let alone Judge Mukasey, have any doubt as to whether waterboarding is torture? Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani isn’t sure and says “it depends on how it’s done” (soothing music might help, perhaps). Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC television commentator, also notes the “debate” and asks “Is waterboarding torture?”

The experts have no doubt. “Waterboarding,” says Malcom Nance, former chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School, “is a torture technique. Period.” Writing on his blog, Nance says: “Having been subjected to this technique, I can say: It is risky but not entirely dangerous when applied in training for a very short period. However, when performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique – without a doubt. There is no way to sugarcoat it.”

The widespread assertion that waterboarding is “simulated drowning,” according to Nance, is a mischaracterization. “It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

Waterboarding is a torture technique in which the one being questioned is strapped down, his head below his chest, and has a cloth either draped over his face or stuffed in his mouth. Water is then poured over the cloth. It was first used during the Spanish Inquisition (probably against Muslims, wouldn’t you know), and it has been a favorite of many tyrannical and despotic regimes throughout history. To witness what waterboarding actually looks like, click here.

Mr. Nance dismisses the claims of the “torture apologists,” as he calls them, that techniques such as waterboarding have been effective in getting detainees to talk: “Of course, when you waterboard you get all the magic you want – because remember, the subject will talk. They all talk! Anyone strapped down will say anything, absolutely anything to get the torture to stop. Torture. Does. Not. Work.” This has been repeated by virtually every expert in interrogation: torture is not an effective means of extracting information.

“Yes,” say the torture apologists, “but we got information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by waterboarding. It was valuable information, too.” Really? In October 2006, the Washington Post reported that, “Numerous sources have confirmed that the CIA used waterboarding in its interrogation of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other ‘high-value’ prisoners.” According to ABCNEWS investigative reporter Brian Ross, waterboarding KSM helped thwart a plot to attack a building in Los Angeles.

Yet, that is not factually correct. According to President Bush himself, that plot was thwarted in early 2002 “when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al Qaeda operative. Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target, and how al Qaeda hoped to execute it. This critical intelligence helped other allies capture the ringleaders and other known operatives who had been recruited for this plot.” Yet, KSM was captured in Pakistan after the plot had been thwarted in March 2003. So, if the Library Tower plot was revealed by waterboarding KSM, it was not new information. Thus, as Malcom Nance says, “Torture. Does. Not. Work.”

Therefore, why torture a terrorism suspect? If we were to capture Ayman Al Zawahiri (he has lost the privilege of being addressed as “Dr.”), and we subjected him to waterboarding and other such “harsh interrogation techniques,” what would be the purpose, knowing that torture simply does not work? I echo Mr. Nance’s statement that: “I would personally cut Bin Laden’s heart out with a plastic MRE spoon if we per chance met on the battlefield. Yet, once captive I believe the better angels of our nature and our nation’s core values would eventually convince any terrorist that they indeed have erred in their murderous ways.”

This sentiment echoes perfectly this Qur’anic principle:

“Repel thou [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend. ” (41:34)

It follows the commandment of Jesus Christ on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the just and on the unjust .” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Some may scoff at this and accuse us of being “soft” if we follow this course. And true, it may not give us that carnal satisfaction of seeing a mortal enemy suffer in sweet revenge. Yet, Christ said: ” Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven in perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Shouldn’t we, as Americans, be, therefore, sons of our Father in heaven? Shouldn’t we, as Americans, be, therefore, perfect?

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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