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  Issue: 79   Page No: 19   Updated: 01/03/2011 07:16 PM
Author:  Barbara S Worden
Topics:  Torture
Type:  Article

Waterboarding—the Sequel

By Dr. Barbara S. Worden, Professor, Houston Graduate School of Theology.

Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result each time. Albert Einstein

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.   George Santayana

   Dr. Kurt Gray of the social psychology department at Harvard recently completed a research study in which subjects listened to simulated torture and were questioned later about their attitudes to it. As the torture intensified, individuals tended to conclude more strongly that the ones being tortured were guilty. As this is multiplied on a large scale, postulates Gray, states and political systems have their attitudes similarly corrupted. He came to some surprising conclusions: “Gray says the experiment suggests that governments that initially advocate torture—or passively allow it—will see it as more justifiable, and thus are more likely to advocate for its use in the future.”

   He explains: “You can see the feedback cycle. If torturers see their victim’s pain as a sign of guilt, then the approach seems effective and it makes sense to torture more people. In reality, though, the pain that torture causes just changes our perception of the victim, not our knowledge of the facts of the case.” What happens to the presumption of innocence guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is obvious.

            Torture is not only morally wrong by the standards of the constitution and Christian ethics, it also fails, as it always has failed whether in the Inquisition or in the modern war against terror, in its goal of producing reliable information, especially where time is an issue. The fact that something can be both morally and ethically wrong for Christians and also impractical and ineffective is a truth that should be remembered in an age when Christian ethics have increasingly been swallowed in moral relativity and the belief that whatever seems to work is right.

   In an article, published in the Washington Post, Richard Mezo, a former navy flight crew member, describes the waterboarding he endured as part of his training for possible capture by Chinese Communists. “Waterboarding is real drowning that simulates death. It’s an experience our country should not subject people to.”

   What is water torture cum waterboarding like? The modern description by Mr. Mezo, free as it is of historical exaggeration, is sufficiently graphic. After being forcibly slammed down on a flat surface, my face was covered by a “blindfold” that was “heavy and completely covered my face. As the two men held me down, one on each side, someone began pouring water onto the blindfold. And suddenly I was drowning. The water streamed into my nose and then into my mouth when I gasped for breath. I couldn’t stop it. All I could breathe was water, and it was terrifying. I think I began to lose consciousness. I felt my lungs begin to fill with burning liquid . . . Cutting off my finger would have been preferable. . . . But drowning is another matter.”[1]

   The original waterboarding, along with other tortures used by the Inquisitions of the medieval and early modern period, were not only substantial failures in uncovering actual subversive activities by “heretics;” they in fact created two largely nonexistent organized heresies, the Free Spirit and the organized Witchcraft scare. These alone were responsible by conservative estimates for almost 20,000 executions the majority of which were women. By comparison, the modern fear of nonexistent enriched uranium stores and “weapons of mass destruction” seem like a small shabby accomplishment. At least Mr. Mezo knew, unlike victims of the Inquisition or the U.S. Military, that his captors wouldn’t kill him.

   Like the tortures used by the Inquisition which the Church turned over to the secular powers, the U.S. Government has turned the torture of prisoners over to nations whose judicial systems lack the legal protections for the accused; or they are sent to secret military prisons with non-commissioned officers so that the central government and the upper ranks of the military could keep their records clean, claiming “we don’t do that.”          Both the Inquisition and the modern War on Terror have featured removal of the usual protections for the accused provided by the secular legal system. In the Inquisition this included change of the judge’s role to one closer to that of prosecutor, and the elimination of a provision for defense advocacy and knowledge of witnesses against the accused. The modern use of torture during the War on Terror also uses secret courts, warrantless wiretaps, and dramatically weakened assumption of innocence of the accused.

   Most vital in the misleading process of creating non-existent crimes is the use of leading questions by torturers. Judges and prosecutors in the middle-ages, like their modern military equivalents, began with specific presuppositions about the nature of the crimes and the guilt of the accused they were examining.

   Why then should waterboarding be abolished?

1. It is ineffectual. The main reason this torture does not work or provide usable information, is that human beings suffering unendurably will say anything to make the pain stop. As the great eighteenth-century literary critic and public intellectual Samuel Johnson stated, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Knowing he will be tortured and actually being tortured similarly concentrates the mind of the victim, concentrates it on what the torturers want to hear, so the victim can say it and stop the pain at least temporarily.

            How this occurs can be seen in the following account  of the torture of Elvira da Campo in the book Sacred Pain, an account of the religious use of torture during the Inquisition. “Told to tell in detail what she had done, she replied, ‘I have already told you the truth.’ Then she screamed and said, ‘Tell me what you want for I don’t know what to say.’ She was told to say what she had done, for she was tortured because she had not done so, and another turn of the cord was ordered. She cried, ‘Loosen me, Senores and tell me [what] I have to say: I do not know what I have done. O Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!’”

            Former Army CID agent Willie J. Rowell, who has 36 years of experience in intelligence gathering, puts it more succinctly, “They’ll tell you what you want to hear, truth or no truth. You can flog me until I tell you what I know you want me to say. You don’t get right information.” Nicolas Eymerie, a fourteenth century French inquisitor assigned to investigate the Waldensian heresy could have told him that six hundred years ago; he states that his experience of evidence gained by “torture est trompeuse et inefficace” [torture is deceptive and ineffective].

            The US government can’t even claim credit for inventing new advanced technological means of inflicting pain. The Inquisition used waterboarding. Torture by burning bare flesh has its modern equivalent in the use of electricity, and the medieval strappado has its modern equivalent in the delightful custom of chaining or handcuffing the prisoner’s limbs to jail bars or other stationary objects in such a way that the victim’s body is agonizingly stretched beyond its capacity.

2. Torture quickly stops being about getting information and becomes more about serving the power needs of the torturer. Inquisition officials used their powers to force the accused into illicit sexual relationships, to avenge themselves against personal and political enemies and to enrich themselves monetarily from confiscations, bribes and fines.

            A former Marine assigned to Guantanamo Bay told Seymour Hersh that prisoners there were often hooded and driven around the compound not to get information, but for the purpose of “just having a little fun—playing mind control.”[2] In Torture and Truth, a collection of reports and documents related to the use of torture at both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghirab, it is reported that American guards and their supervising officers used torture of prisoners as pure entertainment or a means of self medication against boredom, tension and feelings of helplessness.

3. Finally, torture distorts the principles and foundations of the legal and justice systems to a degree that is not only morally repugnant, but makes true justice impossible. On January 22, 2010, the Obama administration stated that around 50 prisoners will be “retained indefinitely” at Guantanamo Bay because information obtained under torture is so unreliable that it is impossible to determine whether these prisoners can safely be released. One can forget about presumption of innocence of the accused. The whole complex illogic of this situation on the part of the U.S. military runs like this: We violated the very foundations of American justice by torturing prisoners to gain information about nonexistent means of mass destruction, but we have found that the information we gained by doing this is so inaccurate that we literally can’t tell the guilty from the innocent and have to put ourselves in more danger by maintaining the tortured in perpetual imprisonment, encouraging still more terrorists to commit more outrages, partially in protest of our abuse of justice.

            In order to save themselves from the judgment that they were violating the essentials of the message of Jesus Christ, both Spanish and medieval Inquisitions specifically developed methods of torture like waterboarding and the strappado that would save the church from the accusation of shedding blood. Another evasion by the Inquisition involved “relaxing to the secular arm” for punishment of persons suspected of heresy so the church could keep its cassocks clean.[3]

            Seymour Hersh clearly outlines the way in which officials of the Bush administration chopped logic and redefined words in order to evade both the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Convention. A memo from Jay S. Bybee, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel written to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, redefines torture as follows: “Certain acts may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within [a legal] proscription against torture. . . . We conclude that for an act to constitute torture . . . it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

            Two honored military heroes, Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain, have provided sound advice. The latter is the only U.S. Senator who has ever been tortured. He knew what torture is when he tried to attach a proviso making torture illegal to a September 2005 defense appropriations bill. As early as January 26, 2002, then Secretary of State General Colin Powell stated clearly and emphatically in a memo to then White House Council Alberto Gonzales that the U.S. should place great importance on not violating the Geneva Convention in its treatment of prisoners.

            Ali Soufan, a former FBI interrogator at Guantanano Bay, told a Canadian radio station that torture doesn’t work in the stereotypical ticking bomb scenario because it simply takes too long, anywhere up to a dozen sessions before the prisoner gives any information at all, and he or she usually gives so much false information that it is impossible to tell false from true.

            What does work? In the case of one of Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenants, diabetic cookies. Sweets helped both parties, the terrorist and the interrogator, see each other as decent human beings.[4]

   Oreos anyone?

[1] Torture experiment described in Dan Morrell, “The Power of Torture,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 2010, 9-10.  See also Mezo, Richard E., “Why it was Called ‘Water Torture’,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2008, online at, accessed January 24, 2010.

[2] Use of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghirab: Hersh, Seymour M., Chain of Command, Danner, Mark, Torture and Truth, New York Review of Books, 2004, 18, 34, 68, 238, 336-44. Stevens, Miles, Oath Betrayed (New York: Random House, 2006), 14-18, 132, 160-8

[3] Information on the Inquisition from the following: Baege, Michael and Richard Light, The Inquisition (New York: Viking, 1999), 72-3; O’Brien, Joan A., The Inquisition (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 44-7.

[4] Chris V. Thompson, “FBI interrogator says cookies more effective than torture,” Digital Journal, online at, accessed February 9, 2010.

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Worden, Barbara S. "Waterboarding" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Summer 2010 (Issue 79 Page 19)
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