NPR on “waterboarding”

It is a macabre reflection that Americans can make torture sound hip, like the latest fad sport. Waterboarding. Soon enough, they’ll have a players’ union.

At any rate, NPR took a look at the history of this “controversial” interrogation technique.

Its use was first documented in the 14th century, according to Ed Peters, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. It was known variously as “water torture,” the “water cure” or tormenta de toca — a phrase that refers to the thin piece of cloth placed over the victim’s mouth.

Eric Weiner’s article accompanies the audio for Jacki Lyden’s interview with Darius Rejali, of Reed College, on the same subject.

A turning point for waterboarding — in any form — came around 1800. As the Enlightenment swept across Europe, many countries banned the practice and people, in general, found it “morally repugnant,” Peters says. Waterboarding moved underground, but did not disappear by any means. In fact, it has experienced something of a revival in the 20th century.

Enlightened civilizations may have condemned the practice, but convenience makes it attractive to those who would call themselves noble, true, and honorable. No marks, no foul. The only object is suffering.

Why is it so important to be able to hurt other people senseless? Information extracted via torture is unreliable. It seems that, at some level, torturing our enemies is simply about being able to torture our enemies. An eye for an eye is impossible, so let us do useless things and pretend they make us feel better.

My fellow Americans, have we yet realized just how badly our twenty-first century has opened? Do we realize yet that things are likely going downhill from here? Seriously, let us pretend for just a moment that global warming is not some bizarre conspiracy hoax designed to weaken human resistance to the final invasion by our reverse-vampire overlords. It would be nice to have a few years of common decency before the next crisis begins when the whole place officially goes to hell.

We’re the good guys. What’s my line?

When I was young, a popular form of machismo was tough wisdom. Often, this came in the form of simple dualisms: “There’s two kinds of people in the world ….” And I’ve never liked it. Mostly because the people spouting it generally sounded hostile. Because wherever you heard those words, you were bound to find someone looking down their nose.

The problem with absolutes, of course, is that nature is infinitely diverse, and statistically promises to bite you in the ass if you stick around long enough.

Recognizing this reality generally does not exempt one from the silly practice of declaring absolutes. Thus, I should should suggest some caution about the following: There really are people who don’t get it.

Asked whether “simulated drowning, dogs, forced nudity, stress positions, beatings, and induced hypothermia” are “unlawful,” Mukasey responded with evasions. He wrote, “As described in your letter,” the techniques “seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me.” However, “hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical,” he said. “I was and remain loath to discuss and opine on any of those alternatives at this stage.”

Mukasey pleaded ignorance about the nature of the techniques. He also argued that any statement of his would aid “our enemies” and might “present our professional interrogators in the field … or those charged with reviewing their conduct, with either a threat or a promise that could influence their performance in a way inconsistent with the proper limits of any interrogation program they are charged with carrying out.” That is, if the likely future attorney general declared such barbaric interrogation techniques to be unlawful, it might prevent interrogators from continuing to employ them.

Mukasey’s claim that the question is a “hypothetical” is absurd, as all the techniques are clearly defined and illegal, according to both national and international law.

Waterboarding in particular has been prosecuted as torture in US military courts since the Spanish-American War of 1898. All the techniques cited in the question are violations of Geneva Convention prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment—prohibitions that are also included in separate US law such as the War Crimes Act. (Joe Kay)

We should never presume that this means there are only two sorts of people, those who get it and those who don’t, because the questions of what is gotten and to what degree remain variable. But something unusually direct, nearly polar, seems to be happening here.

What makes all this even more perplexing is the suggestion that pretty much every generation imagines some sort of Golden Age in the past, when things just weren’t like they are. But it does seem that during my lifetime, the political discourse has taken a sharp turn toward the stupid.

There have always been, throughout the history of good guys and bad guys, good guys who were determined to walk the line, to be nearly as bad as the bad guys, with only the justification that they were, in fact, the good guys. In the range of mythic heroes and villains, you’ll tend to find such characters situated as either blunt, even simplistic good guys with tons of brute force and hearts of gold, or else in calculating, megalomaniacal evil genius.

I never understood the concept of the popular, heartthrob villain in professional wrestling, but something about the reckless edge of America’s would-be heroes actually pines after such melodrama. The refusal to view torture as torture, and therefore as wrong, since torture is wrong, and if it was torture then it would be wrong, stems from a simple inability to look at the things we do in pursuit of at least nominal justice as wrong. It is as if the pursuit of justice somehow licenses all manner of mischief, and the argument only works for us because, well, we’re the good guys.

This brand of macho optimism is straight out of the postwar boom, the bluster and bravado that led to the moon and back, and straight into the new era of American global diplomacy, which is to say, disproportionately absurd exploitation of our military resources. The polished façade suggests poseur belligerence, is meant to contain the cacophony of doubts and fears, endure wavering faith, protect an abstract stake beyond reasonable measure.

There really are people out there who believe that people will fight as long as there is more than one of us. And no wonder they believe they exist. But they may not understand that part of the human endeavor involves choosing to evolve past that problem; they may not understand that not everyone looks at it the same way.

So it is not a matter of there being only two kinds of people. It is not “Us and Them”. Human diversity demands any “us” should be insufficiently representative. But among that all there is a “them”. It would seem that they truly do not understand certain things. But, uh, what are those certain things?

There is a theory I work with, and can never formalize or affix because I can never see the whole process working at once. But it has to do with how they picture themselves. When they lose politically, what they perceive tells them that absolute gibberish won the day. So they come back with absolute gibberish. Seriously: at some point they don’t understand how people can object to anything on principle. After all, isn’t that “prejudice”? Isn’t it “prejudice” to object before you know all the facts?

Frankly, no. That they could not tell the difference would be scandalously suggestive. I mean, if you are upset because your kid is dating someone with the wrong color skin, you probably should not have kids in the first place. If you are upset because the good guys are not supposed to torture people, you should probably let other people play the roles of the good guys.

And here is the real punchline: I only believe this crap because I bought into all that wonderful, idealistic shite they taught me about this country when I was in school, and during my brief stint as a Cub Scout. Apparently–and I feel stupid because I really didn’t know–it’s all a lie.

I would rather we be the good guys.

For real.

Seriously. Land of the free, home of the brave. Liberty and justice for all. Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It was a great pitch.

And if we ever want to have that country the first thing we need to do is put this lot to the rubbish tip.

Let me know. Really. Revolutions shouldn’t be like book club meetings, you know, when you write down the wrong date, and sit drinking coffee for two hours feeling like a buffoon, wondering whether anyone will be showing up, or maybe they meant the SBC in Wallingford ….

Not that I’ve ever been part of a book club. But, you know, I can imagine. Anyway, it really sucks being the only one showing up for the revolution. Ask around. I know I’m not the only one.