Mark Bowden: In Defense of Waterboarding

Posted by DarthDilbert at 1/02/2008 10:58:00 PM

At the time of his capture in 2002, just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was strong reason to believe Zubaydah knew virtually the entire organizational structure and agenda of al-Qaeda around the world. He was supervising ongoing plots to kill hundreds if not thousands of people. He was, for obvious reasons, disinclined to share this knowledge. Subjected briefly to waterboarding - less than a minute, according to published reports - he became cooperative and provided information that, according to the government, resulted in preventing planned attacks and capturing other key al-Qaeda leaders.

In the six years that have passed since the Manhattan towers collapsed, we have gained (partly through the interrogation of men like Zubaydah) a much clearer understanding of al-Qaeda and the threat it poses. While the chance of further murderous attacks is always with us, it is fair to say few of us feel the same measure of alarm we did then. The diminishment of this threat is at least in part due to the heroic efforts of the CIA, the military, and allies around the world in targeting terrorist cells.

In the process, the menace of Zubaydah himself has deflated. Today, he is just another little man in a orange jumpsuit at Guantánamo. Our national concern has shifted from stopping him to figuring out what to do with him.

And to second-guessing what was done to him. Waterboarding is a process by which a detainee is strapped down and forced to ingest and inhale water until he experiences the terror of drowning. It is not torture in the traditional sense of inflicting pain; it inflicts fear, intense, visceral fear, without doing physical harm. It is a method calculated to straddle the definitions of coercion and torture, and as such merely proves that both methods inhabit the same slippery continuum. There is a difference between gouging out a man's eyes and keeping him awake, and waterboarding falls somewhere in between.

In the unlikely event that Zubaydah knew nothing of value and that every bit of information he divulged was false, it was still reasonable to assume in 2002 that this was not the case. If his interrogators were able to stop one terror attack by waterboarding him, even if they violated international agreements and our national conscience, it was justified. All nations have laws against killing, but all recognize self-defense as a legitimate excuse. I think the waterboarding in this case is directly analogous, except that Zubaydah himself, although he richly deserves it, was neither killed nor permanently harmed.

This process should be done to the senior senator from Massachusetts each year on July 18th.

Philadelphia Inquirer

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