Torturous Debate over Waterboarding

The politics of Mukasey's nonresponse to whether waterboarding is torture has, unsurprisingly, led the media to ask the same question.

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Washington, D.C. is in the thick of an apparently arcane, but actually fundamental debate, hinging on one question: “Is waterboarding torture?” George W. Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Judge Michael Mukasey, refuses to answer the question one way or another. Most media speculation has therefore focused on the politics of this non-response. Will it destroy his nomination? Would a straight answer either way have done more damage, or less?

Unsurprisingly, some of the commentary has focused on the question itself: Is waterboarding really torture? We heard the self-appointed expert Mort Kondracke opining on Fox News, predictably saying that it “doesn’t result in any lasting damage.” And an expert on CNN saying “you wake up feeling fine the next day.” CNN even ran a playful report from Jeannie Moos, showing people waterboarding themselves, and ending with footage of someone surfing on the ocean—on a real “water board.” Get it?

Even the “responsible” media outlets danced like Fred and Ginger around what to call waterboarding. Most went with “interrogation technique” or “interrogation method,” although some added the understated adjectives “coercive” or “harsh,” and we heard much talk of “simulated drowning” and heads being dunked in water.

Yet as former Judge Advocate General Evan Wallach wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, those characterizations fall far short of the truth. “To be effective, waterboarding is usually real drowning that simulates death,” he wrote. “That is, the victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic, breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and, eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one experiences after being punched in the gut.”

Allen S. Keller, director of the Bellevue Hospital Center/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, informed the senators present at the confirmation hearings, “There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water. Long term effects include panic attacks, depression, and PTSD.” One prisoner who underwent waterboarding during World War II, when asked how it felt, replied, “Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning … just gasping between life and death.”

Waterboarding has been defined as torture for decades precisely because it causes such obvious physical and emotional suffering. In 1898, for instance, U.S. soldiers were often court-martialed for using the practice on Filipino guerillas. The officer who suspended one soldier for waterboarding wrote that “the United States cannot afford to sanction the addition of torture.” And after World War II, the United States held many Japanese prison-camp officers and guards legally responsible for torture—including waterboarding—that they conducted on American prisoners.

On January 21, 1968, the Washington Post published on its front page a photo of an American troop pouring water over a cloth on a North Vietnamese prisoner’s face. The caption explained that the method seen in the picture induced “a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make him talk.” The soldier was court-martialed on February 28, 1968.

Even the loose definition of torture adopted by the Bush administration and crafted by University of California at Berkeley Professor of Law John Yoo while on loan to the Justice Department, would appear to include waterboarding. According to Yoo, for a practice to constitute “torture,” it ”must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure. Severe mental pain requires suffering not just at the moment of infliction but it also requires lasting psychological harm, such as seen in mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.” But as Wallach wrote in The Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, “None of the Memo’s analysis explains why water-boarding does not cause physical or psychological pain sufficient to meet the criminalization standards it enunciates.”

In his terrific new play “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Tom Stoppard has his character, Jan, a former Czech dissident, wonder aloud, “How did the propaganda paper and the capitalist press arrive at the same relation to the truth? Because all systems are blood brothers. Changing one system for another is not what the Velvet Revolution was for. We have to begin again with the ordinary meaning of words. Giving new meanings to words is how systems lie to themselves, beginning with the word for themselves—socialism, democracy. … An invasion becomes fraternal assistance, and a parasite can be someone who is punished by unemployment and punished again for being unemployed.”

And “waterboarding becomes a normal interrogation technique,” he might have added, without anyone knowing which system—communism or “democracy”—he was describing.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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