Monday 14 July 2008

Let’s face it – waterboarding IS torture

Despite disagreeing with him on virtually any subject you could mention, I must confess to being a fan of the contrarian author/journalist Christopher Hitchens. No matter how controversial the subject of his polemics, I regularly find it impossible not to be challenged by his arguments. Perhaps most impressively of all, he is also one of the few journalists who are prepared to put their own convictions to the test – an all-too-rare quality in the champagne socialist world of journalism dominated by the likes of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Polly Toynbee. In my opinion, it is this exact quality that is the reason that Hitchens’ latest article for Vanity Fair has caused such a stir amongst all sides of the media.

Writing in the online American journal Slate at the end of last year, Hitchens made the suggestion that “extreme interrogation” does not necessarily constitute “outright torture”. On publication of these comments, the former member of SWP pre-runner International Socialism and now apologist-in-chief for the war and current occupation of Iraq was accused of supporting the use of “waterboarding” as a means of interrogating suspects of terrorism. Challenged by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter to be put through the experience himself, Hitchens agreed to be placed in the hands of the elite U.S. Special Forces team skilled in the advanced form of training SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape).

So on a May afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Carolina, the experience began: hooded and handcuffed, Hitchens was led to a darkened room where loud techno music was being played and short sharp lights pierced the veil of his hood, before being “turned around a few times” for disorientation purposes. The journalist was then tied to sloped wooden board, facing upwards but with the head positioned lower than the heart, and several additional layers were applied over his face. A slow jet of water was then poured over this padding, tightening the damp cloths against the face to produce the stifling drowning effect, a feeling further exacerbated by the attempts of the prisoner to breathe through this layered mask. A feeling? Perhaps a more accurate description would be the drowning experience – as Hitchens himself argues, the "official lie" about waterboarding is that it "simulates the feeling of drowning", whereas in reality “you are drowning - or rather, being drowned". In the event, Hitchens managed to withstand the experience for all of eleven seconds before panic set in (a video his experience is here), a record which reads slightly more impressively when considered that trained CIA officers subjecting themselves to the same technique have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before caving in.

While the instant reaction of many to the “dunking” of the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (referred to by the U.S. National Commission’s report as "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks") would be one of disdainful brush-off, the practice by the U.S. of this procedure upon prisoners suspected of terrorism raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Quite apart from natural objections on the grounds of human dignity, this procedure has been accused of producing flimsy and unreliable “confessions” from suspects, an objection which is common to procedures more generally accepted as torturous. In demonstrating this point, Hitchens recounts the case of one such suspect being so panic-stricken by the ongoing procedure that he eventually “confessed” to being a hermaphrodite. Such accounts raise the uneasy spectre of the genuinely innocent detainee, equipped with no form of resistance training from Al-Qaeda or any other, literally being “dunked” until he provides information which he simply does not hold.

Accusations have also arisen that support for this practice – tacit or otherwise – has allowed terrorists to claim both provocation and justification for the use of (admittedly more extreme forms of) torture when dealing with Western hostages. After all, if countries which claim to be bound by Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are seen to endorse or employ such methods, what hope do coalition forces have when taken prisoner by those pariah regimes, fed on a diet of anti-Westernism? This point is brought home all the more forcefully when reminded that waterboarding was first employed by America in training Special Forces to resist such methods if taken prisoner by such an enemy – not to inflict this themselves.

As well as the obvious immediate and long-term consequences to physical health, the mental affects of a torture experience are rarely erased. To illustrate this point, Dr. Allen Keller, Director of the Bellevue/New York University Programme for Survivors of Torture, offered the following example in an interview with the New Yorker magazine of one such patient who had been waterboarded years before: “He couldn't take showers, and panicked when it rained. The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience”. As in the case of capital punishment, there is often no way back from a torture experience – a far cry from the inalienable human right against torture and cruel or unusual punishment, a definition which I find it hard not to apply to this practice. When confronted by the arguments of the anti-abolitionist movement, Abraham Lincoln once stated that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”. Hitchens takes up the same moral test by arguing that “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture. On this evidence, it is difficult not to agree.

William Hague has previously pledged to put human rights at the heart of the Conservative Party’s foreign policy. In implementing this laudable objective, a Conservative Government must be seen to provide a significantly better alternative to the hypocrisy of New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy”. Perhaps placing pressure on our American allies to discontinue this method of torture would send out the best message on the seriousness with which we as a Party and as a nation take human rights, as well as providing the starkest contrast to Labour’s record both domestically and internationally.

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