Hitch Gets Waterboarded

A number of people have noted Christopher Hitchens's latest piece in Vanity Fair, entitled "Believe Me, It's Torture." Many of the notices praise Hitchens for undergoing the ghastly experience of being waterboarded, and for honestly admitting things like the following:
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.
Let's not be so fast to say nice things about Hitchens, though.

For one thing, the reason he agreed to undergo this in the first place is not because he thought it worthwhile to show the procedure's barbarism, but because his more ethical readers challenged him to. It started with this piece he wrote for Slate last December, in which he said,
At a time when Congress and the courts are conducting important hearings on the critical question of extreme interrogation, and at a time when accusations of outright torture are helping to besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world, a senior official of the CIA takes the unilateral decision to destroy the crucial evidence.
Notice that, according to him, what the United States was doing was merely "extreme interrogation," not "outright torture." The latter, he implied, was merely an accusation leveled by nefarious anti-American groups abroad and at home. Among the groups he had in mind were, for example, Time magazine and Amnesty International, about whom he'd said this two years previously:
The man whose story of rough interrogation has just been published in Time had planned to board a United Airlines flight and crash it into a skyscraper. I want to know who his friends and contacts were, and so do you, hypocrite lecteur.

[...]

Amnesty nonetheless finds its voice by describing the [Guantanamo Bay] prison itself as "the gulag of our times" [...] if an organization that ostensibly protects the rights of prisoners is unaware of the nature of a colossal system of forced labor and arbitrary detention—replete with physical torture, starvation, and brutal execution—then the moral compass has become disordered beyond repair. This is not even neutrality between the fireman and the fire. It surely expresses a covert sympathy with the aims and objectives of jihad and an overt, if witless and sinister, hatred of the United States. If only this were the only symptom of that tendency.
No, no torture at Guantanamo Bay; only the Soviets did that sort of thing. It was just "rough interrogation," that's all. And if you dare to say it's torture -- or even if you talk about it at all, really -- why, then you're siding with "the aims and objectives of jihad" and you have a "hatred of the United States."

Are we clear on Hitchens's past ideas about this sort of thing?

So, now that Hitchens has undergone the procedure himself on a dare, what does he conclude? Well, pretty much what everyone he smeared has been saying for years. What you will find in his VF article is that waterboarding is torture; that it has a lasting and terrorizing effect on its victim; that it provides no reliable information; that it crosses a moral Rubicon that is far better never to approach; and that all it really does in the end is make it more likely that your own people will be tortured in response:
I am somewhat proud of my ability to “keep my head,” as the saying goes, and to maintain presence of mind under trying circumstances. I was completely convinced that, when the water pressure had become intolerable, I had firmly uttered the pre-determined code word that would cause it to cease. But my interrogator told me that, rather to his surprise, I had not spoken a word. I had activated the “dead man’s handle” that signaled the onset of unconsciousness. So now I have to wonder about the role of false memory and delusion.

[...]

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

To quote Nance: "Torture advocates hide behind the argument that an open discussion about specific American interrogation techniques will aid the enemy. Yet, convicted Al Qaeda members and innocent captives who were released to their host nations have already debriefed the world through hundreds of interviews, movies and documentaries on exactly what methods they were subjected to and how they endured. Our own missteps have created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for Al Qaeda’s own virtual SERE school for terrorists."

One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true?
Do I give Hitchens credit for coming to these conclusions? Hardly. You see, there are those of us who had figured all of this out years ago, and we didn't actually have to undergo the experience to do so. It was enough to understand what the procedure was, to understand its history, to understand its effects, and to imagine oneself in the place of the victim. In other words, it took merely the most elementary historical and ethical sense, one that takes no special training or experience. In shorter words, if you actually have to get tortured to know what torture is and that it's wrong, then you've already left the real world far behind.

Finally, notice what you will not find in Hitchens's VF piece: any statement that says, clearly and unambiguously, "I was wrong." You will not find any acknowledgement that those he's been smearing for the past seven years were right; no apologies to Amnesty or to anyone else. Hitchens presents the most obvious claims -- waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong and counterproductive -- as if they were his very own discoveries, with no context, no history, no owning up to his own past mistakes. He is, in other words, effectively just another "liberal hawk" trying to rehabilitate his shattered reputation by pretending that his being wrong about everything for years never happened, and that his very serious opinions must be taken very seriously by very serious people.

No thanks. I still prefer to listen to people who got it right the first time.


Update: I see that this post got picked up by the New York Times. While most of the commenters there seem to be agreeable enough, a few accuse me of thinking myself a morally wonderful person. I don't. I'm no better than anyone else, and really, that's the point. Knowing that torture is wrong and that something that, for forty years, has been called torture is torture takes no special insight.

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