Hitchens makes clear from the start of his story that he considers waterboarding a form of torture. Hitchens, however, also presents the opposite case.
It is perhaps possible to detect signs of insincerity in Hitchens' presentation of this side of things, but the essence of the argument seems intact.
Maybe I am being premature in phrasing it thus. Among the veterans there are at least two views on all this, which means in practice that there are two opinions on whether or not “waterboarding” constitutes torture. I have had some extremely serious conversations on the topic, with two groups of highly decent and serious men, and I think that both cases have to be stated at their strongest.
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.
In making the case for waterboarding as torture, however, Hitchens doesn't do much better. Though he could have drawn simply from his own experience, a ghastly one that receives the customarily creative and erudite literary treatment from Hitchens, he instead hands off to Malcolm Nance. Nance is the serious figure who testified about waterboarding before Congress and offered a description of waterboarding that appears at odds in some respects with personal accounts like Hitchens'.
1. Waterboarding is a deliberate torture technique and has been prosecuted as such by our judicial arm when perpetrated by others.
I continue to find this argument unpersuasive, since, as with Evan Wallach's essay in The Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, it rests on an equivocal understanding of waterboarding. That is, waterboarding as Hitchens experienced it is treated as identical with the methods used by the Japanese and the Germans even though significant dissimilarities existed.
2. If we allow it and justify it, we cannot complain if it is employed in the future by other regimes on captive U.S. citizens. It is a method of putting American prisoners in harm’s way.
The second objection has obtained some truth over time as the Geneva conventions have received the "living Constitution" treatment. Known terrorists, via loophole, get the same treatment as either innocent civilians or legitimate members of the military. The conventions grew out of a world culture that respected military action as a legitimate expression of diplomacy (the realist view). The argument Hitchens borrows from Nance here doesn't follow, for it presupposes an inability to reach new international agreements that would protect Americans from those who pay attention to those sorts of agreements. It is worth noting, of course, that Japan, which provided one of the most egregious examples of wartime behavior, signed the Geneva Conventions. Our soldiers received scant protection.
3. It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. (Mr. Nance told me that he had heard of someone’s being compelled to confess that he was a hermaphrodite. I later had an awful twinge while wondering if I myself could have been “dunked” this far.) To put it briefly, even the C.I.A. sources for the Washington Post story on waterboarding conceded that the information they got out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was “not all of it reliable.” Just put a pencil line under that last phrase, or commit it to memory.
Once the invention of a method for extracting only reliable information is complete I'll be able to pay proper attention to the third point. Credit Hitchens for the proper presentation of this point, though. Often it is simply said that waterboarding produces only bad information. Reports from solid sources appear to indicate that waterboarding elicits at least some reliable and actionable information.
4. It opens a door that cannot be closed. Once you have posed the notorious “ticking bomb” question, and once you assume that you are in the right, what will you not do? Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well, then, bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack.Waterboarding does not open the door from point number four. Asking the "ticking bomb" question opens that door if any measures beyond normal interrogation are considered. Waterboarding is apparently not currently on the table, with legislation having passed that ties the CIA to the same interrogation methods as the armed services. To the extent that waterboarding was used, it opens that door--but right now that door has been shut so the premise of the point appears to have crumbled.
Updated July 6, 2008 for spelling and clarity