17 seconds to moral clarity with Christopher Hitchens

If you haven’t seen this video yet, you simply must. In the space of five minutes, you get to see how Christopher Hitchens saw the light on waterboarding in an undisclosed location somewhere in North Carolina. Not only does he admit that it IS torture, he also admits that it’s not “simulated” drowning, it IS drowning–of a particularly terrorizing kind. And it takes him just a few seconds to “break”. He flings away the metal object (poetically called a “dead man’s handle”) that the torturers have given him to signal–simply by dropping it–that he can’t take the torment anymore. It all looks so unceremonious, which makes you wonder how long anyone can withstand such a treatment.

Here’s Hitchens in his own words:

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

This is because I had read that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, invariably referred to as the “mastermind” of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, had impressed his interrogators by holding out for upwards of two minutes before cracking. (By the way, this story is not confirmed. My North Carolina friends jeered at it. “Hell,” said one, “from what I heard they only washed his damn face before he babbled.”)

It certainly doesn’t look like they did much more than that to Hitchens, if you watch the video. I was surprised at how soon he dropped the metal thingie. It was almost immediate.

But of course, some of you lurking rightard sadists out there may be wondering if this technique “works”. If by “working” you mean does it supply accurate and actionable evidence that will stand up in a court of law or assist in the search for terrorists, or will it defuse a ticking bomb, the answer is a resounding NO. But on the other hand, if you consider “working” to be defined as terrorizing the victim and making him/her say whatever it takes to make it stop–that is, if you consider the objective of the torture to be not gaining information or evidence, but simply to physically and mentally destroy the victim, then yes, it certainly does work. And it goes on working long after the torturer’s part of the job is done. Here’s Hitchens again:

Steeling myself to remember what it had been like last time, and to learn from the previous panic attack, I fought down the first, and some of the second, wave of nausea and terror but soon found that I was an abject prisoner of my gag reflex. The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer. I still feel ashamed when I think about it. Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to push the bedcovers off my face, and if I do anything that makes me short of breath I find myself clawing at the air with a horrible sensation of smothering and claustrophobia. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my interrogators comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re breathing water.” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the torturer and the tortured.


I am somewhat proud of my ability to “keep my head,” as the saying goes, and to maintain presence of mind under trying circumstances. I was completely convinced that, when the water pressure had become intolerable, I had firmly uttered the pre-determined code word that would cause it to cease. But my interrogator told me that, rather to his surprise, I had not spoken a word. I had activated the “dead man’s handle” that signaled the onset of unconsciousness. So now I have to wonder about the role of false memory and delusion. What I do recall clearly, though, is a hard finger feeling for my solar plexus as the water was being poured. What was that for? “That’s to find out if you are trying to cheat, and timing your breathing to the doses. If you try that, we can outsmart you. We have all kinds of enhancements.” I was briefly embarrassed that I hadn’t earned or warranted these refinements, but it hit me yet again that this is certainly the language of torture.

“We have all kinds of enhancements” = “Ve haf vays of makingk you talk.” Nice, eh? Of course, a wily enough victim could still find ways of resisting the “enhancements”. But even if no one could, the torture still doesn’t make people say anything particularly useful. Hitchens notes that one torture victim “confessed”, falsely, to being a hermaphrodite. Torture may make ’em talk, but it does not guarantee that what they say will make sense.

And speaking of making sense: Maybe it’s the residue of Hitchens’s own residual lack of moral clarity. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t know what this passage is…

The team who agreed to give me a hard time in the woods of North Carolina belong to a highly honorable group. This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.

…but I can tell you unequivocally that the torturers who “belong to a highly honorable group” are just as indoctrinated and brainwashed as any al-Qaida terrorist, and, notwithstanding all protestations of “lame and diseased attempt to arrive at moral equivalence” by sophists like Hitchens, it is all for the exact same purpose. The only difference is which side one is on. Both groups perceive themselves as the righteous guardians of an order which is under threat from an enemy. And that enemy is out to kill them with the moral equivalent of tooth decay. Suddenly, the local high-fructose corn syrup diet must be maintained at all costs, including the very worst.

Maybe Hitchens doesn’t understand this because, as an outspoken anti-theist, he’s blinded by the blatant religiosity of the Islamists (as opposed to the much more subtle kind that prevails among the Americans), but if yo
u go him one better and strip away all the religious trappings from the basic beliefs of the two tribes, you get the exact same thing. Each side perceives its own ungrateful, lazy, decadent civilization to be under threat from the other. And the threat can only be countered, at least in the minds of the “threatened”, with murder and torture. Yeah, I can “clearly understand this viewpoint”, too–but even more clearly, I can understand that it is bullshit, and I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand that incontrovertible FACT.

And in fact, even Hitchens, in his roundabout and bumfuzzly way, finally comes out and admits…well, ALMOST as much:

One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

I don’t know if he will go on to have more such episodes of genuine moral clarity, but it’s a good start.

I could get smart-assy and suggest that he be waterboarded some more, but I think we already know where that road leads. Plus, I think that he might just be amenable to reason if treated more humanely. At worst, we could just, er, assist him by taking his bottle away.

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