Waterboarding and the Bush Administration’s Relative Morality

This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on February 11, 2008.

You may have missed it because you were paying attention to election returns on Super Tuesday, but on the same day that the GOP made a former POW its presumptive presidential nominee, the director of the CIA admitted to the United States Senate that members of the intelligence community had engaged in waterboarding while interrogating prisoners suspected of being linked to Al Qaida.

The following day, while most Americans were digesting electoral results, counting up delegates and speculating on future contests, a White House spokesman asserted the Bush Administration’s belief that waterboarding is perfectly legal under some circumstances, and promised that waterboarding will be used in such circumstances as the Bush Administration deems appropriate to keep Americans safe.

Waterboarding is a form of torture that is at least as old as the Spanish Inquisition. During waterboarding, a prisoner is tied town while large quantities of water are poured onto her or his face to simulate drowning. Waterboarding is illegal under the Geneva Conventions’ prohibitions against torture, and the United States’ Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional. The Pentagon, in its most recent military field manuals, has specifically prohibited US military personnel from using waterboarding, and the US Senate, on two occasions has expressed its dislike for the practice. Nonetheless, the Bush Administration, shunning common decency and flipping the bird at the rule of law, has decided to keep waterboarding in its bag of tricks.

This is morally shortsighted.

The justification of the use of waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques” usually involves an imaginary ticking bomb. The argument is as follows: if someone in our custody has knowledge of a bomb that is about to go off (or of a terrorist attack about to be executed) then we are morally responsible to extract that information by whatever means necessary. It is an attractive argument until it applies to Americans and our allies; yet such universality is necessary, as morality knows no national allegiance.

Under the ticking bomb justification for waterboarding, no one can be more justifiably subjected to waterboarding or other forms of torture than a member of the United States’ military. After all, everyone knows that the United States has more capacity for destruction than any organization in the history of the world. It is no secret that we are well stocked with nuclear weapons (we have a history of using them, too), and if, in the last fifty years another nation has dropped more conventional warheads on more civilians in more places around the globe that the United States, I don’t know about it.

If rules for the use of waterboarding and of other forms of torture are universal, then certainly the destruction of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden are proof that the Japanese and the Germans were justified when they tortured American military personnel. Furthermore, since we cannot deny the right of nations such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria to defend their borders and to protect their citizens against foreign attack, we must prepare ourselves to excuse the use of waterboarding against Americans if this or any future Administration is sufficiently foolish and immoral enough to pursue hostilities with those we now deem our enemies.

My guess is that most of those who defend the use of waterboarding by the United States are moral relativists. Even as they applaud the Bush Administrations’ dedication to torture, they would in no way support the idea that such cruelty should be visited upon American men and women in uniform. This is a reverse alchemy in which the golden rule turns to lead, and it is beneath the character and the soul of this or of any nation.

15 thoughts on “Waterboarding and the Bush Administration’s Relative Morality

  1. While I may be naive in many ways of this world. Never have I ever doubted that we were above using the same torture techniques as other nations. I guess you could say…that which was suspected is now confirmed. Am I happy? No.


  2. Ever since I was hosed in the face during a Fraternity prank at UCLA, I have been against this torturous method of interrogation. However I would like to take certain politicians to the board should they keep shredding Emails.

  3. As always, sound thinking well-argued. But in the last paragraph did you really mean to write “Untied States”? We certainly do seem to be unravelling. Go, Ben!

  4. Friends,

    Thanks for your posts and for your good words. Joyce, you are now on my shameless self-promotion list. James, you found one that my editor missed. I’ll fix it (though you are right–it might be the work of the Holy Spirit)


  5. Hey Ben-

    interesting factoid: apparently waterboarding was originally a RELIGIOUS form of torture;if i have my facts right, it was a “second baptism” on those whom it was perpetrated. William Schweiker writes that “Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or “re-baptizers” since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins. In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism” (“Baptism by Torture”, University of Chicago)

  6. Yow. Maybe this is a from of Evangelism. Bush is trying to baptize Muslims. Holy cow.

    Come quickly, January 09!

  7. I like the use of waterboarding.
    If it helps stop innocent people from getting hurt or killed I’m totally for it!

  8. Karl,

    The victims of waterboarding tend to aspirate a lot of water. I’m not a doctor, but I doubt it’s particularly healthy.


  9. Let me make my point clearer so you may understand it.
    People who are wterboarded generally have information that may be useful in stopping terrorist acts on citizens.
    We have had no attacks since 9/11 and it is on record that these strategies work.

  10. Karl, I think the problem with what your saying is this: waterboarding, like all forms of torture, tends to invoke false confessions in a significant portion of its victims. This has been true ever since waterboarding was first used by the inquisition in the middle ages.

    It is true that further attacks have been thwarted, but I’m not sure I agree that waterboarding can take any of the credit. I’d be interested to see the documentation you cite.


  11. Karl,

    Not so fast. The “proof” you sent is an article which states (and we’ll assume this is accurate) that waterboarding worked in the cases cited. I don’t think anyone doubts that waterboarding works sometimes. It may even work much of the time. But when you’re dealing with matters of life and death you need better accuracy.

    Everything I’ve read (most recently “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual” by Jonathan Kirsch) says that waterboarding and other forms of torture are unreliable ways to collect accurate information.

    Besides, what if we torture someone who ends up being innocent. Have we not then punished a person before she or he was tried in a court of law? What about the constitution? What about simple human decency?


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