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.