Columns, Opinion

REMILLARD: Waterboarding is torture, contrary to GOP candidates’ claims

Is waterboarding torture?

Yes. Unequivocally.

Now, before I go into the argument, let’s get some logistics out of the way.

First, why are we talking about this?

During Saturday’s final Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary, moderator David Muir posed the following question to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: “Is waterboarding torture?”

Cruz responded, “Well, under the definition of torture, no, it’s not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems … It does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.”

I’ll come back to this.

Frontrunner Donald Trump responded, “We have people chopping the heads off Christians … I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

God, I’m sick of writing about the GOP. Anyway.

Second, what is waterboarding?

According to — dark, I know — waterboarding involves restraining a subject on a 15- to 20-degree decline with the feet higher than the head. Water is poured into the mouth and nose, and collects in the sinuses and trachea. Although ideally — ideally being the operative word — water does not enter the lungs and cause drowning, the experience triggers the same intense panic as an episode of drowning.

Finally, what is torture? Part 1, Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.” Article 1 of 18 U.S. Code § 2340 defines torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

So Cruz’s definition is, frankly, wrong. Both the “generally recognized” international definition and the U.S. definition make no mention of specific damage to organs or systems. I am left, then, with proving that waterboarding inflicts “severe” physical or mental suffering. According to many accounts far more credible than Cruz, it does both.

One of the most influential voices on the debate about waterboarding is Arizona Sen. John McCain. McCain, as a lieutenant commander in the Vietnam War, was captured in 1967 and was subjected to beatings, refusal of medical service, roping and solitary confinement during his five-and-a-half year imprisonment.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, McCain was vocal about waterboarding, once even claiming, “It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.” In an interview with journalist John King in 2011, McCain pointed out that the United States had prosecuted Japanese waterboarders after World War II, using the same international definitions that the CIA had circumvented prior to 2009, when the United States stopped waterboarding.

In 2005, ABC reported, “CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.” John Sifton of the Human Rights Watch told ABC, “The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law.”

This kind of psychological response constitutes severe mental suffering. The physical suffering comes from prisoners who violently struggle against the restraints in panic, or when water enters the lungs. Victims cannot breathe during the procedure, often faint and many die.

This is corroborated by Henri Alleg, a French-Algerian journalist who was waterboarded during the Algerian War. In a 2007 Democracy Now! interview, Alleg recalls “many of the people who went under that waterboarding … after having had some moments of fainting, some of them would die.”

Waterboarding has not been knowingly used since the Bush administration, as President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2009 halting its practice. But Congress has not made it officially illegal, which explains why the question as to whether it should be brought back was posed to the Republican candidates Saturday night.

Both frontrunners, Cruz and Trump, said they would bring waterboarding back. Trump’s comments seemed to insinuate that the United States should begin stooping to the enemy’s levels when handling our prisoners of war. Unlike Mr. Trump, I am not in favor of taking tips from the Islamic State on how to treat people.

Waterboarding is torture. It inflicts a physiological risk of drowning, compounded by a psychological panic. Calling torture “enhanced interrogation” does not make it anything but torture. It just makes it happen. And that’s how the United States commits war crimes.

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