For those readers who aren’t religious, we turn to U.S. law and international law, where torture is, without exception, condemned. Not one state or municipal law enforcement agency permits it. The Army Field Manual, which regulates interrogations by the U.S. military, prohibits torture. So does the Geneva Convention—a treaty to which both the Holy See and the United States are signatories. None of these institutions or documents draws any distinction between physical and psychological torture either. For all, torture is torture.
When Catholics and Protestants agree, and when religious and secular institutions agree, that torture is an offense against human dignity and that those guilty of it should be thrown in jail, may we not agree that perhaps it is immoral? Do we really need to get into the nuts and bolts of what constitutes torture?
Yes, we do. Most will agree that taking a power drill to a man’s shoulder or pulling out his fingernails with pliers for punishment or to extract information is torture. But when the subject is waterboarding, clarity vanishes again. Some consider waterboarding to be mere psychological torture — which, as we’ve already established, is morally indistinguishable from physical torture.
But waterboarding is not a harmless dunk in the tub, as former Vice President Dick Cheney once likened it, and it is not psychological torture. In waterboarding, a subject is strapped to a gurney. His feet are elevated slightly above his head. A cloth is draped over his face. And water is poured on his face so that it enters his nose and mouth and flows into his lungs. CIA interrogators are instructed to pour the water immediately after a detainee exhales, to ensure he inhales water, not air. They use their hands to “dam the flow” of excess water from a detainee’s mouth. And detainees who are scheduled for waterboarding are put on a liquid diet, to minimize the risk of death should they inhale their own vomit.
This procedure became official American policy in our so-called War on Terror, but it was not always so. Waterboarding has been condemned by the United States government since at least 1898, when American soldiers were court marshaled for waterboarding prisoners during our occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. In World War II, we hanged Japanese war criminals for waterboarding American and Allied troops. In the 1980s in Texas, a sheriff and three of his deputies were convicted by the Justice Department for waterboarding prisoners to extract confessions.
And yet, there are those exceptions: American security is at stake. If waterboarding saves even one life, isn’t it worth it? If torturing a terrorist suspect saved a city from destruction, or if it saved even one life, it would still be a barbaric, savage act, unworthy of a civilized society. If expediency were enough to justify an immoral act, then abortion would be justifiable.