The Morality of Water-boarding
- 4 November 2007 by Author 0 Comments
The Morality of Water-boarding
By Richard Larsen
Published – Idaho State Journal, 11/04/07
Torture is declared by governmental fiat to be illegal. What actually constitutes torture seems to continue to vex the Bush Administration as borne out by the hearings for the latest nominee for U.S. Attorney General. Clearly illegal are the types of activities the fictional character Jack Bauer engages in to extract information from enemies of the state in the Fox Network show “24.” But the issue of “water-boarding” continues to haunt the Administration which classifies it as an aggressive interrogation technique rather than torture.
The now infamous actions of a few at Abu Ghraib are not related. Those who committed those acts of atrocity were clearly an anomaly and acted outside the purview of military guidelines for prisoner treatment and have been punished.
The most broadly accepted definition of torture comes from the United Nations Convention Against Torture which defined it as, “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
The latest nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, faces the prospect of not being confirmed because he has failed to distance himself from the practice of “water-boarding” which some see as torture, but the administration defines as an aggressive interrogation technique.
This is a process where the prisoner is placed on a board, with his feet slightly higher than his head. Water is poured over the face creating the sensation to the prisoner that he is drowning. It triggers a gag reflex and can make a person believe his demise is imminent. Unlike torture, there is no physical damage and as soon as the water stops, so does the discomfort. Yet it is apparently efficacious in extracting information. Even some of our military personnel have been exposed to the practice so they are familiar with it and can deal with it.
According to ABC News, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, was strapped down to the water-board, he felt humiliated – not by the treatment but by the fact that a woman, a red-headed CIA supervisor, was allowed to witness the event. But after two minutes, he cracked and started “singing like a canary,” and yielded invaluable intelligence that interrupted plots in progress and saved countless lives.
Water-boarding does not harm subjects physiologically but may cause mental suffering. It’s this gray area that seems most vexing to those engaged in delineating whether the practice is torture or an aggressive interrogation technique.
Realizing that the practice is in somewhat of a gray area, the morality of using it is inescapable. As in most cases of morality, paradoxes abound when principles of micro morality (what we expect of and do ourselves) are broadly applied on a macro level (society at large, and in this case, government in particular). Even our absolute micro morality of not taking a life is challenged by the reality of a criminal threatening the lives of our family. The conundrum is broadened when that absolute moral principle is applied on a macro basis. On a micro basis, it’s much easier to implement absolute morality, whereas at the macro level, the reality of the evil in the world often trumps that absolutism.
If you were in a position of legal authority and you had a known terrorist in your custody, and you knew they were complicit in a plot to kill thousands of people, what would you be willing to do to protect the innocent? If one of your children was among the threatened would that affect your perspective? Sometimes it helps to personalize the scenario faced by those charged to protect the nation and its citizenry to gain an appreciation for the moral conundrum they face in the discharge of their sworn duty.
On a broader basis, which is the moral high ground? To leave innocents at risk knowing the terrorist you are interrogating has information that can save them, or ensuring there is no discomfort on the part of the terrorist? Is the greater moral requirement to the many, or to the one who seeks their harm? Terrorists are willing to kill, maim, and destroy men, women, and children in pursuit of their twisted political and theological objectives. Is their brief sensation of drowning a greater evil than the potential death of thousands? These are challenging moral issues that the administration must address and promulgate to the rest of us, for their decisions reflect on the morality and the priorities of the whole country.
I sympathize with those charged with making these decisions on a governmental basis. It is a veritable moral tightrope they’re navigating. But frankly, if they err, I would hope it would be on the side of protecting the country and our populace, rather than pandering to a terrorist by extending a civility and respect to him that he is neither deserving of, nor willing to extend to us, his targets. That should be the higher moral obligation.
Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, and is a graduate of Idaho State University with a BA in Political Science and History and former member of the Idaho State Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.