s a teenager, I loved to read comic books. Superman comics were my favorite. Among the many adversaries the Man of Steel faced (and always vanquished) was Bizarro World. In Bizarro World, everything was the opposite of that which prevailed in our world. Up was down, clean was dirty, black was white, good was bad … you get the picture.
Events of the past few years remind me more and more of Bizarro World, except now it’s not a comic-book world, it’s the real world. The effect of witnessing a federal government operating according to Bizarro World standards instead of those enshrined in our Constitution and legal system is truly frightening.
In no instance is this scenario clearer than when the current administration has addressed the matter of whether its agents have, since September 11, 2001, tortured prisoners. The difficulty in resolving this controversy is immense, because administration officials won’t even discuss “torture,” preferring instead to talk about “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Federal officials like the latter term because it is not defined in federal or international law (“enhanced interrogation” being essentially a made-up term), and therefore activities falling within its ambit are notcannot beillegal.
When forced to answer questions regarding torture, as in the recent debate surrounding the technique known as waterboarding, administration officials dismiss such discussions as improper talk of vital national security matters; denigrate and dismiss such discussions as “silly,” as Vice President Dick Cheney did in a recent interview; or deflect criticism by adding a waffle word in front of the operative term and sliding away. The administration and its supporters rely on the unfortunate propensity of many journalists, members of Congress, and others to accept whatever explanation is proffered without probing beneath the surface.
Waterboarding as an interrogation technique has been employed for centuries as a tool with which to elicit information from prisoners. The fact that the technique often achieves the desired resultconfessionseven as it leaves no obvious physical evidence accounts for much of its popularity by practitioners, from the time of the Spanish Inquisition to Nazi Germany. Waterboarding causes excruciating physical pain as the immobilized victim’s lungs fill with water. At the same time, the process inflicts profound psychological pain by creating the very real impression in the victim’s mind that he faces imminent death by drowning. Waterboarding is, in essence, a torturer’s best friendeasy, quick, and nonevidentiary. It had always been considered torture by civilized governments such as oursuntil, of course, this administration.
The fundamental value of waterboarding to an interrogator lies in the pain it inflicts and the fear of death by drowning it engenders. Why else would it be used? However, in typical Bizarro World fashion, the Bush administration refuses to concede that the technique even exists as torture. Although experts (and common sense) tell us that if not stopped in time waterboarding will cause the death of a person subjected to it, the administration delights in referring to it as simulated drowning. The fact is, there is nothing “simulated” about the process of drowning by waterboarding; and there is nothing simulated about the pain it causes. Waterboarding is just drowning that stops short of death (unless, of course, a mistake is made during its infliction).
Vice President Cheney is certainly entitled to his opinion that even discussing waterboarding is “silly,” but in the real world in which we live, and according to the norms of behavior according to which participants in a civilized society are supposed to operate, use of sophistry such as this would never be countenanced, and would certainly not hold up as a lawful defense in a court of law. Yet, even though the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, admitted recently that being subjected to waterboarding would to him be torture, like others in the administration he refuses to discuss the issue intelligently, and dismisses such questions as little things unworthy of his time.
No less an upholder of the law than the attorney general of the United States, Michael Mukasey, sets almost as low a standard for the concept of the rule of law as do Messrs. Cheney and McConnell. For the attorney general, the answer to the question of whether waterboarding (and, by clear implication, other techniques inflicting pain as a tool with which to elicit information from a detainee) constitutes torture and would therefore be unlawful lies neither in clear definitions nor in definite standards. For Mukasey, it all depends on the “situation’s circumstances.” Mukasey refused to answer questions about waterboarding during his 2007 confirmation hearings, but has since determined that the CIA does not engage in the practice. And that, for the nation’s top law enforcement officer, is the end of the matter. Everything beyond that is simply speculative and hypothetical.
This administration has gone beyond even the Bizarro World standard of declaring up to be down or left to be right. Not only is torture not torture, but there exists insufficient clarity even to know what is torture so we can determine whether an interrogation technique is torture or not. While the extreme sophistry and word gamesmanship practiced to a fine art by this administration might make a high school debating coach proud, it does great disservice to the notion that we exist in a society in which there are rules and norms of behavior with clarity and definitiveness and in which government agents as well as the citizenry are held to standards of behavior. This is not something of which we as Americans should be proud, and the use of torture will come back to haunt us in ways this administration apparently either doesn’t realize or simply doesn’t care about.