America Does Not Condone Torture, Nor Should It

By: Caitlin Nolan

The clock is ticking, a potentially fatal situation is at hand and [insert country here] may be blown to smithereens if someone does not act quickly: enter Jack Bauer. On television, there is always a clear cut bad guy, good guy, and as long as the good guy comes out on top, who cares how he did so? In real life, however, things are not always as black and white. Shades of gray paint our world affairs and the end does not always justify the means.

President Barack Obama was recently called to make an executive decision regarding the act of torture. After September 11, 2001, many people felt that those behind enemy lines were deserving of anything we could throw at them. However, it is not always safe to assume that the “enemy” has a clear cut image or identity to grab hold of. Abu Zubaydah, a man regarded as one of the top men in Al Qaeda, was captured in March 2002 and questioned for information using “interrogation techniques.” Interrogation techniques, such as slapping, placing insects in a confined area, and waterboarding were all condoned and used on Zubaydah. According to another recently released memo, Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002. It was later discovered that Zubaydah was mentally ill and held a position in Al Qaeda that required no actual skill or capability.

Author Christopher Hitchens undergoes waterboarding for a better understanding of what the process entails. Photo by Gasper Tringale, courtesy of

Author Christopher Hitchens undergoes waterboarding for a better understanding of what the process entails. Photo by Gasper Tringale, courtesy of

Such flop ups were justified, with officials claiming that these methods of extracting information did not, according to Judge Bybee, member of the United States Court of Appeals and former assistant attorney general, “inflict ‘severe pain or suffering.’ ” How can one really know what causes “pain or suffering” without experiencing it first hand? Author Christopher Hitchens wrote in the August 2008 edition of Vanity Fair of undergoing waterboarding to determine just how terrifying it can be and to settle the debate (for him) on if those in support of such means are actually right. Before beginning, he was required sign a contract of indemnification which included:

‘“Water boarding” is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.’

That statement was written by someone who had underwent the process and had a clear understanding of what could happen in such a situation. Of the experience, Hitchens wrote, “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.” Keep in mind that Hitchens is a completely sane, normal person. It is believed that Abu Zubaydah showed clinical signs of schizophrenia.

Hitchens also explained that this technique has been used in the past by Americans, on Americans. You may be scratching your head thinking I made a typo. Not the case. In the past, Americans have trained to withstand the torture of waterboarding. Learning how to waterboard was only part of the process, it was not meant to be transformed into a “how- to” course. Americans were trained to withstand this practice, not inflict it.

Two wrongs do not make a right, as cliché as that may sound, and possessing the need to extract information from another human being does not need to lead to torture. It has been found that in situations of extreme pain and panic, someone may very well lie to escape the torture. Wouldn’t you? By condoning the act of torture, America cannot persecute others for using the same methods of information gathering. That’s just plain contradictory. In fact, waterboarding has been prosecuted as such by our judicial system when perpetrated by others. Following World War II, the Japanese captors of Chase J. Nielsen, one of the U.S. airmen who participated in the Doolittle raid following the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been tried for war crimes.

Demonstration of waterboarding. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta courtesy of

Demonstration of waterboarding. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta courtesy of

At the trial, Nielsen recounted the event, stating, “The towel was wrapped around my face and put across my face and water poured on. They poured water on this towel until I was almost unconscious from strangulation, then they would let up until I’d get my breath, then they’d start over again… I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.” How can officials on our side of the fence state that this practice causes no pain when one of our own testified to it?

The President banned the act of torture and rightly so. Many may be up in arms but when no distinction can be made between the enemy and the hero; those labels hold no meaning. At the end of the hour, Jack Bauer is still a fictional character and those in the real world have to face the actions of our leaders. Stand by your decision, President Obama; you’re in office for a reason.


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