It took all of six seconds to exorcise the unearned and unwarranted self-regard that had possessed Chicago rant radio personality Erich “Mancow” Muller: All that was necessary was a brief application of the “water cure,” a torture protocol now commonly referred to as “waterboarding.”
Mancow (as we’ll refer to him) insists that he underwent the procedure, in its most benign form — he could call it off on his own terms at any time, and the purpose was to conduct a demonstration, not to break his will — in order to prove that it is relatively harmless, and that critics of its use are exercised over nothing.
Six terrifying seconds later, Mancow emerged from the experience a chastened and wiser man. “It is way worse than I thought it would be,” Mancow admitted while the horror was still freshly imprinted in his mind and body. For him, the sensation — however brief — of being helpless as water filled his mouth and sinuses summoned palpable memories of a near-drowning he experienced as a child.
The Chicago radio personality is one of several media figures who have undergone a relatively domesticated and benign form of waterboarding.
Each of them experienced merely the mechanics of this torture method; in fact, Mancow’s hands were left unbound and he was able to sit up and leave the table without the aid of others. As the subject of a “demonstration and exercise,” Mancow and each of the other media figures who have undergone the “water cure” could end it at any time, and was surrounded by people who wanted to ensure that they avoided serious injury. None of them was helpless in the hands of a professional torturer who regarded them as a thing to be broken and humiliated.
The practice of torture reveals the elemental nature of the State even more effectively than does the summary killing of innocent people. The State is an entity claiming a monopoly of force over a given geographic region. And force, as Simone Weil so poignantly observed, is that mysterious influence "that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him."
It is possible for an individual to lose his life at the hands of those who enforce the State’s will without losing what makes him human: Sovereignty over his individual choices, a sense of self-ownership, and self-possession, even in the hands of his enemies. This is precisely what the torturer seeks to strip from the individual, particularly when he leaves the victim alive.
Owing to its status as the world’s largest and most powerful government, the Regime ruling us must also be regarded as the world’s pre-eminent practitioner of torture. Yes, horrible things are done in the dungeons of Pyongyang, Beijing, Havana, Riyadh, and Tehran. But none of those governments can project its power halfway around the globe, or operates a global archipelago of “black sites” in which hired torturers — often foreign subcontractors from satellite regimes — ply their trade.
Compounding that grotesque irony is the fact that the most outspoken advocates of torture in the world today — perhaps in all of recorded human history — are Americans who profess to worship Jesus of Nazareth.
As a man, Jesus was subjected to every fiendish method of torture devised by the perverse ingenuity of professional sadists.
While Jesus was willing to endure those torments, including an ignominious death through torture on the cross, it is impossible to extort from His teachings, or the moral instructions of those who knew Him first-hand, anything resembling an endorsement of torture for any purpose, or so much as a hint that the practice may be morally acceptable.
Exercising a lamentable gift for casuistry, some “Christian” apologists for torture describe contemporary methods — such as controlled drowning, sleep deprivation, the use of stress positions, and the occasional beating — as relatively mild forms of “corporal punishment” meted out to captured "terrorists."
“The terrorist, worthy of death but given the plea-bargain of corporal punishment in exchange for life-saving information, should be awfully glad just to get beaten silly for plotting genocide, instead of being killed outright in the same way he was going to murder civilians,” sneers one “Christian” defender of Torquemada’s fraternity.
“Corporal punishment for capital crimes is only immoral if no valuable, life-saving information is ever gleaned,” he continues. “If the United States were handing out beatings because we were too scaredy-cat to administer firing squads, yes, I would have a problem with it and call it immoral. But if we are negotiating a plea bargain by pummeling the guy who was going to set off a truck bomb at Chuck E. Cheese’s, then I’d say the terrorist ought to be awfully grateful to us for, whack, being such gentle negotiators.”
In his derangement this individual assumes that everyone accused or suspected of involvement in terrorism is guilty of that offense, and no proof beyond the accusation is necessary. This definitive question is similarly left begging by other “Christian” torture advocates, at least some of whom rummage through the severe penalties prescribed in the Law of Moses in the misguided belief that, first, the terms of the Old Covenant are still in force; and second, that we’re discussing punishment for proven crimes, as opposed to the interrogation of people yet to be convicted of an offense.
Another torture apologist and professed Christian insists that torture is a valid wartime interrogation method, and that in any case waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation methods” institutionalized by the Bush junta don’t amount to torture.
“`Torture’ has been defined through the ages by the Mongols to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi Gestapo to the brutal Japanese of World War II,” he writes, as is his wont, with much greater certitude than knowledge. Handicapped by an unremarkable mind filled to capacity with talk radio-caliber slogans and buzzwords, and eager to insulate his prejudices from exposure to uncongenial facts, this fellow dutifully regurgitates the Bush Regime’s euphemism for torture — “enhanced interrogation” — in blissful ignorance of the fact that the phrase is the exact English translation of the same phrase used by the Nazis (verscharfte vernehmung) to describe almost exactly the same collection of torture methods.
Likewise, he is either unaware of or indifferent to the fact that waterboarding, known by its Spanish name El Tormento de Agua, was widely employed by the Spanish Inquisition, or that the use of water torture was among the war crimes for which many of the “brutal Japanese of World War II” were executed.
“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side,” observed Orwell, “but he has the remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” In some cases, like the one presently under examination, the nationalist is vividly aware of atrocities only when they are committed by the “other side,” and is hopelessly blind to them when they are carried out by the government he worships.
“[M]ake no mistake: We have non-fatal techniques available to scare the bejabbers out of those Muslim maniacs and get them to blabber, but that is not `torture,’ folks,’” he insists. “We do not hack the heads off innocent prisoners like Daniel Pearl on videotape while those maniacal butchers chant, `Allah is great!’”
Indeed not: “We” — meaning the government ruling us, and those foolish enough to identify with it — drop high-yield explosives from high altitude, or fire cruise missiles at targets thousands of miles away, or deploy remote-controlled unmanned killer drones against targets halfway around the world, and the resulting carnage never makes a public impression, at least over here. “We” don’t make and circulate videotapes of the civilian casualties — including women and children — that result whenever such selectively antiseptic methods of mass murder are employed.
Yes, the murder and mutilation of the heroic Daniel Pearl illustrates the utterly demonic depravity of which Jihadists are capable. How does that fact mitigate the murderous proclivities of the government ruling us, which — unlike Jihadism — is a tangible present threat to us, rather than an entirely hypothetical one? Are we to assume that the beheading of Daniel Pearl represents the outermost benchmark for permissible behavior, and that anything short of videotaped decapitation of helpless hostages is acceptable?
The eagerness to advertise such exploits as the murder of Daniel Pearl demonstrates that Jihadists can at least be candid about exactly what they are. They don’t indulge in sanctimonious prattle about such episodes not reflecting their ideals, or issue stern admonitions against releasing images that will put their “troops” at risk — as some American defenders of aggressive war insist in opposing publicity of atrocities at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
The practice of torture, in the American experience, is usually an outgrowth of aggressive foreign war. It does nothing to enhance the safety of the country. And whether or not it is openly acknowledged and publicized, it undermines the safety of American troops on the battlefield. U.S. Army Major Matthew Alexander, who was among the most successful military interrogators in Iraq, asserts that torture and other abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, not Islamic ideology, served as the main recruiting theme for foreign Jihadists who gathered in Iraq. By his reckoning, torture contributed directly to the death of more Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan than occurred on September 11, 2001.
Assuming that the “Long War” abroad ever ends, torture will continue to exact a price from Americans unless it is definitively repudiated and its practitioners and enablers properly punished. It fell to Jesse Ventura, of all people, to underscore the reason why countenancing torture by U.S. officials anywhere threatens the rights of Americans everywhere.
During his recent Smackdown ’09 Media Tour, Mr. Ventura devoted his imposing physical presence and testosterone-saturated rasp to their best and most commendable use: Pushing back against the official bullies who promote torture and the media lickspittles who parrot the official line. As someone who underwent waterboarding during SERE training as a Vietnam-era Navy SEAL, Ventura would abide no dishonest dissembling as to whether or not the practice constitutes torture.
As to whether the practice can be justified as a cruel but effective interrogation technique, Ventura asked a critical question: If it works so well, why don’t police use it against criminal suspects?
What Ventura may not know is that roughly a century ago, following America’s near-genocidal war to “liberate” the Philippines from the burden of self-government, water torture became a very commonplace method of administering the “third degree” in police departments from Los Angeles to New York, with special emphasis in Chicago and various parts of the Deep South.
The “water cure,” notes Dr. Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, “migrated here after American troops returned from the Philippine insurgency in the early 20th century. By the 1930s, the water cure was favored by the Southern police.” Police in Chicago preferred a variation they called the “ice-water cure,” in which they sought to extract confessions from prisoners “by chilling them in freezing water baths.”
During World War I, “American military prisons subjected conscientious objectors to ice-water showers and baths until they fainted.” Indeed, prior to release of the report by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (the so-called Wickersham Commission) in 1931, the methods now known as “enhanced interrogation” were commonly called the “Third Degree” — “the infliction of physical or mental pain to extract confessions or statements,” in the words of the report.
The practice was found to be “widespread throughout the country” and “thoroughly at home in Chicago.” Third Degree tactics ranged from “beating to harsher forms of torture,” reported the Commission. “The commoner forms are beating with the fists or some implement, especially the rubber hose, that inflicts pain, but is not likely to leave permanent visible scars…. [A]uthorities often threaten bodily injury … and have gone to the extreme of procuring a confession at the point of a pistol.”
Interestingly, these abhorrent practices thrived in large measure because of the policy the Wickersham Commission was assembled to review — alcohol prohibition, the early 20th Century version of the War on Drugs. And it may be the case that the wartime atrocities in the Philippines grew out of common practices in police departments, which were refined in foreign battlefields before being imported, in greatly amplified form, to the homeland.
In 1902, the Army convened a court-martial of Major Edwin F. Glenn (among other officers and enlisted soldiers) for war crimes, including the use of the “water-cure” against captured Filipino insurgents. Among Glenn’s victims were a Catholic Priest named Fr. Bartolome Picson, who was “water-cured” to death under his supervision, and Fr. Picson’s sister, who was bayoneted to death on his orders. Major Glenn’s defense attempted to submit evidence showing that Brig. Gen. Frederick D. Grant (the son of Ulysses S. Grant), who presided over the trial, had employed or authorized water torture and similar practices in 1894 as a police commissioner in New York City.
In an example of self-serving institutional hypocrisy comparable to that depicted in the film Breaker Morant, the court-martial refused to allow evidence that would impeach the authority of its president.
Things worked out a bit better for Glenn than for Harry Morant and his comrade Peter Handcock: Glenn was convicted of war crimes, and sentenced to a one-month suspension and a fifty-dollar fine.
Following the counter-insurgency war in the Philippines, it took nearly three decades to purge the practice of officially sanctioned torture from America’s law enforcement system. That war lasted about two years. The current conflict began more than seven years ago. The bi-partisan Establishment considers the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be parts of a “Long War” that would last a generation or more.
What the government is permitted to do to suspected terrorists and insurgents abroad, it will eventually inflict on civilian criminal suspects here at home. This principle is clearly illustrated by the experience of the Philippine counter-insurgency war.
The prospect of a nationalized law enforcement system infused with a Cheneyite perspective on torture should be enough to cure any thinking person of what we might call “Mancow Disease”: A crippling lack of moral imagination that leaves the victim unable to recognize torture for what it is until he has personally experienced the mildest possible sample under the gentlest possible conditions.