[Marxism] Mukasey and waterboarding

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 5 08:08:50 MST 2007


November 3, 2007

AMONG the news media's many failings, none may be more pernicious than 
the persistent confusion between fairness and moral indifference.

Regular readers of Regarding Media may recall that the late Edward R. 
Murrow delivered about the best possible judgment on this confusion's 
impact, when he decried a faux notion of journalistic fairness that is 
willing to concede "the word of Judas equal weight with that of Jesus."

It's the kind of he-said-she-said news coverage that would have reported 
the Sermon on the Mount this way: "On a mountainside in Galilee today, a 
popular young rabbi argued that 'the meek shall inherit the earth.' 
Other religious authorities, however, pointed out that if God did not 
want the rich to fleece the poor, he would not have allowed them to 
behave like sheep."

This week, Americans were treated to their latest rehearsal of this 
phony fairness in the coverage of U.S. Atty. Gen.-designate Michael B. 
Mukasey's attempts to win Senate confirmation. President George W. Bush 
hopes to replace the haplessly sycophantic Alberto Gonzales with the 
former federal judge from New York, but the nomination is in trouble 
because Mukasey refuses to tell members of the Senate's Judiciary 
Committee whether he believes waterboarding is torture and, therefore, 

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are insistent that any 
discussion of the issue is precluded by the exigencies of national 
security and the war on terror. Cut to the core of their real argument, 
however, and it boils down to the naked assertion that whatever the 
president says is legal is legal -- including torture, which isn't 
torture, if the president says it isn't.

As the Washington Post, which has done more than any other news outlet 
to bring to light this administration's construction of a secret gulag 
where torture is routine, reported this week: "Waterboarding generally 
involves strapping a prisoner to a board, covering his face or mouth 
with a cloth, and pouring water over his face to create the sensation of 
drowning, human rights groups say. The practice dates at least to the 
Spanish Inquisition and has been prosecuted as torture in U.S. military 
courts since the Spanish-American War. The State Department has 
condemned its use in other countries.

"Officials have said the Bush administration authorized the use of 
waterboarding on at least three prisoners kept in secret detention by 
the CIA after the Justice Department said it was legal, including 
alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed."

The Post might have added that after World War II, the United States 
prosecuted Japanese officers who had presided over waterboarding as war 

So what we have here is a president and vice president who want to 
install as the country's chief law enforcement official a man who 
refuses to flatly say that the United States of America should not 
torture people. Putting aside the surreal question of how our elected 
officials ever equivocated themselves into a debate over whether to 
torture, the descent of most of the press into comfortable euphemism 
this week has been a stomach-turning experience.

The New York Times, for example, reported that Mukasey's confirmation is 
"in doubt over his refusal to state a clear legal position on a 
classified Central Intelligence Agency program to interrogate terrorism 
suspects . . ." Yet nothing about this impasse has anything real to do 
with classification or intelligence work; it has everything to do with 
whether we now wish to place our nation among those that ignore basic 
human rights and elemental moral decency as a matter of state policy. 
Meanwhile, this newspaper and others repeatedly described waterboarding 
as a "harsh technique" or as a "coercive measure." It is neither of 
those things. It is torture, and the refusal to make that point each and 
every time this repugnant practice comes up is a form of rhetorical 
squeamishness indistinguishable from moral cowardice.

Strangely enough, this week's clearest statement of what the fight in 
Washington is really all about didn't appear in any newspaper or 
broadcast news outlet, but on an Internet site ( 
www.smallwarsjournal.com) popular with unconventional warfare and 
intelligence professionals. The author is Malcolm W. Nance, a veteran 
special operations consultant to various U.S. intelligence agencies and 
a master instructor in the U.S. Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and 
Escape (SERE) program in San Diego. Nance also is an experienced 
Arabic-speaking interrogator. He wrote that one of the things he did 
when helping to develop the program that trains navy fliers and others 
on how to stand up to torture was to visit Cambodia:

"Before arriving for my assignment at SERE, I traveled . . . to visit 
the torture camps of the Khmer Rouge. . . . I wanted to know how real 
torturers and terror camp guards would behave and learn how to resist 
them from survivors of such horrors. . . . It was in the S-21 death camp 
known as Tuol Sleng in downtown Phnom Penh, where I found a perfectly 
intact inclined water board. Next to it was the painting on how it was 
used. . . .

"On a Mekong River trip, I met a 60-year-old man, happy to be alive and 
a cheerful travel companion, who survived the genocide and torture. He 
spoke openly about it and gave me a valuable lesson. . . . In torture, 
he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a 
Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia. He was actually 
just a schoolteacher whose crime was that he once spoke French. He 
remembered 'the Barrel' version of waterboarding quite well. Head first 
until the water filled the lungs, then you talk."

Nance has no time for euphemisms and no doubt that waterboarding is 
anything other than torture: "Unless you have been strapped down to the 
board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your 
gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of 
water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of 
the word. Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American 
model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an 
interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate 
drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way 
to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to 
drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions 
shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team 
doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the 
physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from 
painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to 
the final death spiral.

"Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to 
contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration -- usually the 
person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is 
horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to 
terminal hypoxia. When done right, it is controlled death. Its lack of 
physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with 
its use again and again."

That's what really is at issue in the Mukasey confirmation hearing. When 
the media characterize it as a political struggle between the White 
House and congressional Democrats or as a complex debate over national 
security in a post Sept. 11 world -- two convenient dodges -- they 
aren't being realistic or fair. What the media really are doing is 
engaging in a sophisticated fan dance -- a convenient act of concealment.

What's really at stake is whether this country will continue to stand 
with the framers of our Constitution and our authentic moral traditions 
or whether we now will allow Bush and Cheney to put us shoulder to 
shoulder with Pol Pot.

tim.rutten at latimes.com

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