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April 12, 2016

Waterboarding

Presidential hopefuls have been mentioning waterboarding quite a bit lately. Is it torture? Is it not? Certainly, there is a continuum of nasty things that can be done to prisoners. It has been noted that Daesh does things that are more extreme than anything the US would contemplate. Nevertheless, some among us would draw the line between torture and simply discomfort differently than others. Is sleep deprivation torture (since I am very familiar with sleep deprivation I can say that it is not nice but falls short of being torture)? What about withholding preferred food (again, I am an expert on this)? This is something that a person can tolerate reasonably well. That brings me to waterboarding. We waterboard our Seals. Would we torture our own people? What would be the purpose in that?

We have, after all, a cultural history of waterboarding for punishment and to extract confessions of one sort or another. How is that again? A cultural history of waterboarding? Yes, Virginia, we have a history of waterboarding in the form of dunking chairs and stools and keelhauling aboard ships. These things occasionally were fatal, but they were generally intended to not be fatal. This is in contrast to “walking the plank” which was a method of execution.

What is the point of all this? The point is that the line that divides torture from simple discomfort is subjective AND depends on the timeliness of the information one is trying to extract. If a prisoner is simply a dangerous person who you need to detain to keep him or her from doing bad things, then it is gratuitous to subject the person to much discomfort. However, if the prisoner has critical information that, if known, would protect our citizens and/or troops from imminent harm, then the line of demarcation moves distinctly toward making the prisoner more uncomfortable. Does this include waterboarding? Why not leave this up to the troops who are closest to the problem? Well, there will probably be disagreements with this position. So if you have a counter argument, feel free to comment.

Don’t forget that the value of information obtained from duress may be of questionable quality and can even be dangerous (such as leading one into a trap). Suppose that you were being asked to confess to being a witch or a scold. Might you confess when you think that you are not. Suppose further that as an enemy combatant you are asked to reveal plans of upcoming attacks. Can you imagine thinking up all sorts of phony plans that would lead your enemy to incorrectly evaluate your side’s strength or waste resources preparing for events which will never take place?

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