Waterboarding is back in the news. Whether for or against, Cheney, Pelosi, and Obama have all been struggling to find the proper spin for decisions they’ve made regarding this practice.
It has become popular to debate whether waterboarding is torture or not. I find the entire affair a bit like debating what the atmosphere smells like on Venus. Most of the participants lack a certain experiential credibility.
I think there are several separate questions. There is the classic ethical question, “May we harm one man in order to save 10,000?” This is a tough question that humanity may never resolve, but one that is quite fair and useful to debate. Presuming the answer is yes, another question might be, “How much may we harm one man in order to save 10,000?” I think this question is more difficult, but still perhaps valid to debate.
Another question obviously might be, “Would the harm we intend actually be effective in saving the 10,000?” This question is fair to debate as well, particularly if the practice has occurred in the past and the results can be measured. But unlike the first two ethical questions of right and wrong, this question is, in the broad sense, scientific. The facts and reason exposed in honest, open debate may well tell us whether the practice is actually effective.
The question I object to is this: “Does waterboarding (or your interrogation technique of choice) cause substantial harm to the person who undergoes it?” From the armchair we can speCUlate whether any harm may happen – physical or psychological, permanent or temporary. We can speculate on pain versus discomfort or a hundred other facets of minutiae. But none of our armchair speculations will bear any weight or get us any closer to an answer.
Unlike our first two, ethical questions, which can be debated only from the armchair, or our third question, which requires accurate scientific research, the fourth question demands experience. There is a very simple, gut-level test that should be required of every interrogation policymaker who claims to have an answer to this question.
An answer of “yes” (there is substantial harm) can be legitimately arrived at by two paths. The first is personal experience. “Yes, I’ve personally undergone the waterboarding technique and found that it did me substantial harm.” The second is not experiential, but still valid. “That technique scares me so badly that I would never try it.” This second, gut reaction is analogous to the death test. Is it good to be dead or bad to be dead? If somebody tells us that death is bad, we may not believe he really knows that from experience, but we instinctively agree that neither of us should push the other to try it out.
An answer of “no” (no substantial harm) can be legitimately arrived at only by the path of personal experience. “Yes, I’ve personally undergone the waterboarding technique and found that it did me no substantial harm.” The gut reaction is not valid in this case, which is once again analogous to the death test. If someone tells us that death is good, we merely laugh and say, “Yeah, right. You know that how?”
We should likewise laugh at any interrogation policymaker who claims to have the answer to this question without having arrived at the answer through one of these paths.