What “Torture” is

If you’re not reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog, you’re not fully aware of what this administration’s doing to untried prisoners in the name of The War Against Other People’s Terrorism. Some technical details:
“TORTURE AND WATER: One of the experts on torture, especially that practised in Iran, professor Darius Rejali of Reed College, emails an exhaustive account of the various techniques involved, including their gruesome nuances:


This specific water torture, often called the “water cure,” admits of several variants:

(a) pumping: filling a stomach with water causes the organs to distend, a sensation compared often with having your organs set on fire from the inside. This was the Tormenta de Toca favored by the Inquisition and featured on your website photo. The French in Algeria called in the tube or tuyau after the hose they forced into the mouth to fill the organs.

(b) choking – as in sticking a head in a barrel. It is a form of near asphyxiation but it also produces the same burning sensation through all the water a prisoner involuntarily ingests. This is the example illustrated in the Battle of Algiers movie, a technique called the sauccisson or the submarine in Latin America. Prisoners describe their chests swelling to the size of barrels at which point a guard would stomp on the stomach forcing the water to move in the opposite direction.

(c) choking – as in attaching a person to a board and dipping the board into water. This was my understanding of what waterboarding was from the initial reports. The use of a board was stylistically most closely associated with the work of a Nazi political interrogator by the name of Ludwig Ramdor who worked at Ravensbruck camp. Ramdor was tried before the British Military Court Martial at Hamburg (May 1946 to March 1947) on charges for subjecting women to this torture, subjecting another woman to drugs for interrogation, and subjecting a third to starvation and high pressure showers. He was found guilty and executed by the Allies in 1947.

(d) choking – as in forcing someone to lie down, tying them down, then putting a cloth over the mouth, and then choking the prisoner by soaking the cloth. This also forces ingestion of water. It was invented by the Dutch in the East Indies in the 16th century, as a form of torture for English traders. More recently it was common in the American south, especially in police stations, in the 1920s, as documented in the famous Wickersham Report of the American Bar Association (The Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, 1931), compiling instances of police torture throughout the United States.

Perhaps the main thing to remember here is that all these techniques leave few marks; they’re clean tortures and so people who are unfamiliar with them are in genuine doubt as to whether there is much pain. In the absence of a bloody wound, who is to say how much pain there was?

“It seems the method that the U.S. has authorized is closest to c), the Nazi one, or d), the one developed by the Dutch and deployed in the American South. Remember that this is authorized for use in the secret black sites, exposed by Dana Priest. It is this CIA-directed torture that Dick Cheney is so adamant on retaining and codifying into law.”




Andrew Sullivan’s blog is heroic: it singlehandedly kept Captain Ian Fishback’s testimony from disappearing (until Senator McCain weighed in, at which point the soldier could no longer be ignored/smeared); Sullivan in fact may well have kept Fishback himself from being disappeared. (I don’t usually go in for this kind of conspiracy theory, but Cheney was reliably quoted as having said, with regard to Fishback: “Either break him or destroy him, and do it quickly.”)

Something not stressed in this account of waterboarding, by the way, is the subject’s firm belief that he is about to die. When Dostoevsky was led out to be executed (a “hoax,” much like waterboarding), it was the most brutal psychological event in his life, and changed him forever; the condemned man standing with him, in fact, went incurably mad.

That this kind of psychological torture is not regarded as “torture,” per se, says something about the shallowness of this administration. George Orwell understood (as he understood so much about today’s White House) — in1984, the protagonist is ruined not be physical pain, but by the manipulation of his mortal phobia of rats. Gerard Manley Hopkins also understood:


“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.”



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