Waterboarding: Catholic law professor says such torture methods are intrinsically evil
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Catholic San Francisco) - Testifying last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Michael Mukasey repeatedly refused to describe the practice of “waterboarding” — which simulates death by drowning — on suspected terrorists as torture and an illegal interrogation method.
WAGING WAR - Professor Marcy Strauss believes most Americans don’t want to think about the U.S. government’s use of torture in the war on terrorism. (R.W. Dellinger)
Then on Feb. 5, CIA Director Michael Hayden admitted publicly for the first time before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that his agency had used the harsh technique on three Al Qaeda suspects in 2002 and 2003. One of those waterboarded was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. But Hayden insisted the Central Intelligence Agency had stopped using the technique nearly five years ago.
The following day, however, the White House not only vigorously defended the legality of waterboarding, but reported that President Bush might authorize its use again “under certain circumstances.”
And on Feb. 7, Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, declared that personally he was happy the Administration had allowed suspects to be subjected to such harsh interrogation methods.
“Would I support the same decisions again today? You’re damn right I would,” he proclaimed. At the same time, the vice president insisted that the United States takes human rights seriously, adding, “We do not torture — it’s against our laws and against out values.”
Last month, on Feb. 13, the Senate passed a bill, approved earlier by the House of Representatives, that bans waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who sponsored the provision limiting interrogation methods, declared, “Torture is out.”
But President Bush has threatened to veto the entire measure, claiming it limits the CIA’s effectiveness by outlawing punitive interrogation tactics.
And with that, the debate about using torture — specifically, waterboarding — to aggressively question suspects in the U.S.’s war on terrorism was abruptly reopened.
An intrinsic evil
Waterboarding has been used as early as the Spanish Inquisition to interrogate, coerce confessions and simply punish individuals. The simple yet brutal technique hasn’t varied much in 500 years. The victim is forced to lay down on his back with his head slightly inclined. Then, with a cloth placed over the person’s nose and mouth, water is poured over his face. After only seconds, the gag reflex is triggered, and the person begins to suffocate and gasp for air.
Japanese troops and Hitler’s Gestapo used waterboarding to torture and interrogate prisoners. Although the procedure was designated as illegal by U.S. generals during the Vietnam War, the Washington Post and other national newspapers called the practice “fairly common” on and off the battlefield. And Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge used it extensively between 1975 and 1979.
Waterboarding not only causes extreme pain and the sensation of dying, it can also severely harm the lungs, damage the brain due to oxygen deprivation and, if uninterrupted, result in death. What has made the technique so popular over the centuries is that it leaves no marks on the body.
Today, many legal experts, human rights organizations, war veterans, intelligence officials and military higher-ups consider waterboarding as torture to the extreme, being on a par with placing electrodes on a person’s genitals.
Marcy Strauss, professor of law at Loyola Law School, has traveled across the country debating not only the legality of using torture to interrogate suspected terrorists, but also its morality.
The personal human rights campaign has taken its own toll on the seasoned academic.
After speeches and debates where the mother of two boys would argue there could be no exceptions about using torture — an intrinsic evil — to elicit information, people would often challenge her asking, “What if your own kids were kidnapped?”
Better psychological tactics
“That bothered me for awhile,” confided Strauss during an interview in her second-story on-campus office near downtown Los Angeles. “And then it occurred to me that if I truly believe that torture isn’t effective, the answer would be ‘no,’ because we’d be getting all kinds of false leads instead of using long-standing psychological tactics that work much better.”
Still, Strauss reports, she was never a “gut-level” liberal who couldn’t see there were arguments on the other side that needed to be addressed.
“It was very difficult for me, and I did go back and forth to some extent,” she admitted. “But I guess the position I’m somewhat comfortable with at this stage is that torture is illegal. It’s one of the international norms that knows no exception. It is prohibited without any emergency, necessity exception. It’s one of those few norms that are like that — that and slavery and ...
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