May 01, 2009

Give Me That Old-Time...Waterboarding

First, I begin with a disclaimer: I am no grizzled war veteran, and I certainly have no desire to engage in the elaborate combat fantasies of chickenshits like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who did everything possible to stay out of harm's way when a war in which they firmly believed, the Vietnam conflict, was raging.  As in the case of, say, 99.9% of the American populace, and even 90% of uniformed cops, I have never fired a shot at a human being and I hope I live my whole life able to make that statement.  I've read a lot of World War II history, and it's my understanding that a majority of even combat troops never actually fired their weapons in an actual battle.

So I'm strictly using intuition and my imagination on this torture thing to create a hypothetical. I am imagining that I'm with a squad of American soldiers and for some reason we become trapped behind enemy lines during World War II.  We're in France, say.  Something like this actually happened to my uncle, who was a glider surveillance pilot in advance of D-Day. Anyway, we're disoriented, lost, and we come across a lone German soldier.  We capture him. What we want him to tell us is where the Germans are and the right way to move to get back to our own lines.  Under these circumstances, I don't think we're going to worry about the Geneva Conventions.  We need him to talk right away.  If it means pointing a revolver at his head, we'll do it.  Whatever it takes.  We'll also watch him closely to see if we can gauge whether he's telling the truth, because the truth is what we're after.  We're not going to rough him up just to rough him up.

I would not expect my buddies and me to be court martialed or tried as war criminals after the war is over.  I would not expect anyone ever to give it a condemning thought.  There were exigent circumstances and we did what any sane, self-regarding, even compassionate person would do.  I certainly would never think of "prosecuting" such soldiers for anything, so long as what they did was not gratuitous or sadistic just for the hell of it.  But that becomes an atrocity unrelated to the business at hand.

Let's imagine another scenario.  It's 2002 and George W. Bush, at the height of his Unitary powers, decides that Millicent S___, a Jefferson City, Missouri third grade teacher, a pale blonde woman about 28 years old, is an enemy combatant.  American patriots such as Charles Krauthammer, Samuel Alito of the Supreme Court, John Yoo of Cal's law school, Jay Bybee of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Rush Limbaugh, John Cornyn of Texas - they all think this is bold and great.  For some reason, Millicent is involved in international terrorism - so Bush says, and that's good enough for them.  She is captured, stripped, hooded, placed in an orange jumpsuit and shackled in the hold of a transport plane, then flown to Guantanamo.  She won't talk, however, other than to keep repeating there's been some terrible mistake.  Typical terrorist evasion, of course.  So she's stripped again, placed in a hypothermia cell where the temperature is kept at about 50 degrees, and left there with the lights on for about eleven days.  Occasionally she's brought out, shackled in a stress position, or a towel is placed around her neck so her head can be slammed against a wall repeatedly.  Then she's locked in a tiny box where she can't move, can't see, and can hardly breathe.  Still proclaiming her innocence, she's tied to a waterboard over and over and water is poured into her lungs.

Eventually she starts to talk.  Sort of delirious, she describes Afghanistan by saying it's a "mountainous area" and she wouldn't be surprised if bin Laden is still up there, and if there aren't more plots being hatched by a lot of the Arabs the interrogators have mentioned over and over during the last two weeks or whatever it's been.  She signs a confession and then is placed in a cage where she awaits...the end of the war on terror.

Well, we cracked Millie, at long last.  She was tough, she held out, but we got to her. 

"White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified -- more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did."

Pew Poll, April 30, 2009.

I would assume, therefore, that a majority of white evangelical Protestants in the United States would have no problem with our treatment of Millicent S____.  They would not see it as a sadistic fantasy from a pornographic magazine but as effective interrogation work.  Because, after all, this enthusiasm for torture must be based, in the final analysis, on principle and not on some retributive instinct or prejudice.  Note the similarities: Millicent was never tried and convicted of anything before her brutal treatment, exactly as in the case of the Arab detainees we have tortured.  All the rough stuff, the punishment, has preceded any form of judicial process in a court or tribunal.  No determination of evidence by an impartial judge has ever been made or sought.  We assume they're all guilty.  This was the logic of the Inquisition: we would not be burning your eyeballs out with a white hot poker if you were not an infidel, and if you say you're not an infidel, that only proves that you're a lying infidel entitled to even worse punishment, if we can think of something.

But the key word, the distinction, slipped into my comparison.  "Arab" detainees.  That's the real difference.  What is unthinkable for our demure ingenue from Jefferson City is okay if it's a Muslim Arab, because the profound racism of our white Evangelical population, that backbone of the modern Republican Party, provides for a clear distinction in the justice to which a white female American and an Arab Muslim are entitled.

It's an old story in American history.  It justified the internment of the Japanese, and only the Japanese, during World War II, although we were also at war with Germans and Italians.  Bush and Cheney knew it was okay to pick on Arabs because they could count on their party's base to look the other way.  These weren't Christians we were beating up; they were, to Bush/Cheney fans, untermenschen.  That's why, whenever I have blogged about this, I always specify that Bush and Cheney reserved the right to torture Arabs, or to deprive Arabs of habeas corpus, or to render Arabs to countries where torture was assured.

It's not a coincidence and it's not because all terrorists are Arabs.  It would have been unthinkable to waterboard Timothy McVeigh, or the Unabomber, or members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or Bill Ayers and the Weathermen.  And here's the interesting part:  this prejudice has not gone unnoticed in the Muslim and Arab world.

1 comment:

  1. hammerud11:24 AM

    I guess what we did is considered torture by some, but I think most of those who were subjected to it still have their heads. I would like to have the results of those interrogations declassified to see innocent lives were saved, but, I think this current administration is only interested in releasing part of the picture. I guess part of the point in this article is that white evangelical Christians are bad people. It seems like that increasingly is becoming settled opinion in much of our culture. We're in favor of torture, we're homophobic, usually don't believe in anthropogenic global warming or evolution, and believe a lot of the Bible says as it relates to what is going on in the world. At least President Obama made it clear that the United States definitely is not a Christian nation.