By David K. Shipler
A flicker of discomfort crossed Herman Cain’s face in last Saturday’s debate as he was asked about torture. He appeared to be considering the question. For a moment that lasted only as long as his first two sentences, he seemed about to take the high road: “I do not agree with torture, period.” Then he came up with an idea suitable for a banana republic: Leave it to “our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture.” Yet in a final twist, he took a position different from military leaders’ by endorsing waterboarding, which (he may not have known) the Army Field Manual explicitly forbids. He said it wasn't torture. Michele Bachmann followed suit. Rick Santorum had already announced last May that John McCain, who was tortured for five years as a P.O.W. in North Vietnam, doesn’t understand the issue.
Behind this spectacle is an unpleasant truth: Republicans who can’t kick the addiction to torture have been enabled by President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress, who could have created an investigative commission to nail down the facts, expose them to public scrutiny, and puncture the myth that reliable information is obtained by abusing prisoners.
Just as the Church committee in the 1970s documented federal agencies’ spying and dirty tricks against Americans in the civil rights and antiwar movements, a commission on torture—and also on secret surveillance—could inform citizens and perhaps generate corrective measures. The Church committee’s exhaustive report provoked a flurry of privacy laws, which worked pretty well until they were amended and weakened by the Patriot Act.
Since Obama entered office, however, there has been more lecturing than legislating on such matters. He said all the noble things after the Saturday debate, recalling as usual the country’s finer values—“It’s contrary to our ideals, that’s not who we are, that’s not how we operate.” It feels good to have a president who sees the moral issue, but feeling good is not enough. Unless the morality is codified in law, it can disappear as quickly as Obama will vanish whenever he leaves office.
He stopped torture not through legislation when his party controlled both the House and the Senate, but with an executive order requiring all agencies to abide by the Army Field Manual, which was revised in 2006 to bar waterboarding explicitly. The order can be rescinded with a signature, which most Republican candidates are eager to apply. The Democratic Congress could not even pass a bill that would have amended two laws by outlawing waterboarding as both torture and “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
So Republicans remain free to pretend that it is not torture but only “enhanced interrogation” to strap someone to a gurney, tilt him head down, cover his mouth and nose with a cloth, and pour water into it to create the sensation of drowning. Without a change in the law, they could arguably resume it as soon as they return to power. In the debate, only two of the lowest scorers in the polls—Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman—denounced the practice. Paul called it un-American.
Oddly, the candidates who support the method display no shame about their historical fellow travelers. Simulated drowning was a tool of the Spanish Inquisition. It was considered evidence of war crimes during trials of Japanese after World War II. It was used by the Chinese against American prisoners, by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and by white Americans who imprisoned black laborers in Southern mines and factories during the early twentieth century. Two decades before the Bush administration employed the technique, the Justice Department won convictions of a sheriff and three deputies in Texas for waterboarding prisoners.
As performed by the CIA, waterboarding was surrounded by rules that created a surreal aura of clinical humaneness. To avoid lowering the level of sodium in a prisoner’s blood if he swallowed a lot of water, for example, the torture (sorry, the “enhanced interrogation”) had to be done with a saline solution. A two-hour session would be broken into twenty-minute periods, during which water could be poured onto the cloth for 20 to 40 seconds, the prisoner then allowed three or four breaths, then another 20 to 40 seconds, and so on. Two such two-hour sessions could be conducted within 24 hours, for five such days per month. A physician would be standing by just in case—a violation of medical ethics.
We know these details because the Obama administration released the relevant documents, one of which, the discredited “torture memo” by John Yoo, would effectively be revived by the Republican fans of waterboarding. As a Justice Department lawyer under Bush, Yoo played with semantics. The statute defines torture as “severe physical suffering,” which Yoo concluded did not apply since waterboarding lasted too short a time and was not sufficiently intense. It was just “distress,” not “suffering” when waterboarding induced “panic in the form of an acute instinctual fear arising from the physiological sensation of drowning.” He went on: “Physical distress may amount to ‘severe physical suffering’ only if it is severe both in intensity and duration.”
This memo was widely ridiculed and eventually withdrawn by the Bush administration, but its sophistry survives in the presidential campaign, the latest reminder that when language is corrupted, so is perception and then behavior. The country needs to cleanse its vocabulary, which an eminent commission could help accomplish by laying the truth out on the table.