By Brett Popplewell
A plot is conceived to kill the president. A bomb is planted to do the deed. A conspirator is caught before the explosion. His captors take him into a secluded room. They torture him. His will is broken. He gives a full confession. His captors find the bomb and defuse it.
The greater good has been served.
We’ve seen this scenario unfold countless times in novels and films. But does it ever work this way?
The longstanding question of whether torture is an effective means to extract information from detainees has been masked with a burlap sack again and again, strapped to a board and sprinkled in the face with water, and served up to the public for debate on a broken platter topped with CIA memos detailing the extent of the practice.
But the legalities of torturing Prisoners of War (POWs) should have been put to rest 60-years ago, when the Geneva Convention was hammered out by the newly minted United Nations, which said: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.”
So why exactly does the debate over torture continue?
Because there are still those who defend practices like waterboarding — in which a victim is strapped on their back, their face covered, head inclined downwards while water is poured into their breathing passages to instill a sense of drowning — as being a simulated torture, and therefore not an actual torture.
But as Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens, who was waterboarded for about 10 seconds in 2008 as part of a story, will attest: “You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning — or, rather, being drowned.”
To prevent more torture, Hitchens reckoned he would have confessed to anything if his captors had asked.
Problem is, waterboarding victims like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, haven’t been so easily broken. It’s said he was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.
But how could this be? Torture works. Doesn’t it?
Historically speaking: That’s debatable.
In all likelihood humans have been torturing one another to extract information since the beginning of, well, humanity.
The practice probably began a little something like this:
Caveman A: “Where’d you hide the fire?”
Caveman B: “I’ll never tell you!”
Caveman A inserts spear into caveman B’s foot and reiterates question. Caveman B succumbs to pain and informs Caveman A that he has hidden the fire behind the tree.
For centuries, tortures like this were legitimate means of extracting truth before a court of law.
The Greeks did it. The Romans did it. The Spanish did for about four hundred years.
The English, it seems, had a knack for drawing confessions out of the tortured souls of their prisoners.
When Henry VIII grew tired of Anne Boleyn he devised a plot that led to her execution. Integral to that plot were charges that she had committed adultery, including incest with her own brother. Conveniently, Henry managed to extract a number of confessions to support the charges. However, many authors at the time as well as historians today believe the confessions of Anne’s suitors were false, and attained only after a knotted rope was wound ever tighter about the confessors’ heads, inflicting intense pain and persuading them to confess to whatever allegations the king had concocted as an excuse to cut off his wife’s head.
The 1605 torture of Guy Fawkes — the Catholic terrorist who conspired to blow up Parliament and kill King James I — stands as one of history’s greatest examples that torture produces results.
When he was first found guarding mountains of gunpowder buried underneath Parliament, Fawkes wouldn’t even confess his name to his captors. Even then, torture was technically illegal in England, but King James personally authorized it to be used against Fawkes in order to extract his confession.
At first, Fawkes was given the “gentler” treatment of being confined in a room so small the he could hardly stand let alone sit. Later, he was taken to the rack — a medieval device that stretched a prisoner until their arms and legs would pop out of their sockets, thereby crippling them and leaving them ready to confess.
By the time Fawkes was ready to reveal the entire gunpowder plot to his captors he could barely sign his own confession.
Alfred McCoy, historian and author of “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror”, says when torture takes the form of a physical beating it promotes a hatred in the victim toward their torturer, thus leaving them more prone to give false or useless testimony.
John McCain who was captured and tortured after being shot down over Vietnam on a bombing run, has seconded that idea saying torture is an ineffective method in extracting information from POWs.
McCoy says the CIA acknowledged that fact in the 1950s and thus “led massive, secret research into coercion and consciousness that reached a billion dollars at peak. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, this CIA research produced a new method of torture that was psychological, not physical — best described as `no touch torture.’”
“Under the CIA’s new psychological paradigm ….. interrogators used two essential methods, disorientation and self-inflicted pain, to make victims feel responsible for their own suffering.”
Waterboarding is just one of those psychological techniques. But even it predates the CIA by about 700 years.
Tormenta de toca, a.k.a the “water cure” or waterboarding as it’s now known, was commonly used to extract “the truth” within the confines of the law. Tormenta de toca was used by Spanish Catholics during their more inquisitive years. Drown a heathen for a few seconds and they’ll not only confess to their sinful ways, they’ll even give you the names of more heathens. There was no better way to flush the bad guys out of a God fearing society.
Of course we know now that countless innocent Spaniards were named during such tortures, and even more confessed to crimes never committed just to avoid a prolonged sense of drowning.
Incidentally enough, the European Enlightenment of the 18th century saw many countries ban waterboarding. But it remained an underground torture technique in the dungeons of tyrants. That is until the 20th century.
The British are said to have used it against the Arabs and the Jews in occupied Palestine in the 1930s. The French used it on the Algerians. The Khmer Rouge (unsurprisingly) used it against its own people.
Curiously enough, a Japanese soldier was even convicted of a war crime for waterboarding a U.S. civilian and sentenced to 15 years hard labour in 1947. Of course, such a sentence is unlikely to befall any of the CIA operatives responsible for the recent waterboardings of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. President Obama has already given his verbal assurance of that.
As for what happens to those POWs of the so-called War on Terror, well no one quite knows. Not even the Bush-era’s staunchest defenders.
“The operative question becomes: What do we do now with captive bad guys who possess information that could prevent another 9/11? We may have moved on. They, assuredly, have not,” Christopher Buckley once asked.
Here’s a thought: Why not do the same as the Viet Cong did to McCain after torturing him in captivity for five-and-a-half years?
They let him go and he never bombed Hanoi again.