Critics have described it as torture - and the use of torture by a liberal democracy is an abomination, it markedly weakens the moral position of those who wish to defend free secular society from the tyranny of dictatorships whether theocratic, nationalist, Marxist or otherwise. One of the dividing lines between civilisation and the barbarity of tyranny is the unwillingness of civilised states to inflict physical harm and pain upon those it incarcerates or to use the deliberate infliction of pain to seek confessions. It is not because it is always unreliable, at times it is not. Those enduring pain that would otherwise drive you mad are more likely to do what is necessary to avoid it continuing, than concoct some elaborate fantasy. Which is why some soldiers receive waterboarding as training to prepare in the event that they face the horrors of an enemy which wouldn't dare have this debate. The preparation is because of genuine fear that torture produces results.
However torture is wrong. Interrogations are not meant to be fun, they are harrowing, lengthy and can deprive the suspect of comfort and some sleep - but they should not cross the threshold of actually inflicting pain and suffering. To inflict such suffering upon one who may be innocent is simply sadism, to trust the evidence of one who confessed or revealed information under threat of pain is far more questionable than a confession given freely.
So what is waterboarding? Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens decided to find out first hand. His account is here. As far as he was concerned it was torture to go through with it, but he also gives the argument against it. He takes a considered view which gives me pause for thought, in both directions.
"a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay....On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint."
The counter is a number of arguments, but ones that I find most compelling:
"It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. ... 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.”
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."
"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?"
Read for yourself, there is little doubt that waterboarding has helped extract information of value in the war against Islamist terrorism. However, the line that has been crossed is a dangerous one, and one that must be subject to full, free and frank debate. It is not a debate between those who want to be soft on Islamist terror and those who are sadistic fascists - it should be a debate about what constitutes that behaviour which is acceptable for the governments of Western free democracies to undertake. Waterboarding is, as Hitchens said, foreplay compared to how Al Qaeda operates, or Iran or North Korea or China, or indeed many other countries. The moral equivalency some on the left, including Amnesty International, applies to this is repulsive, but somewhat inevitable. I look forward to our friends on the left waging an orchestrated protest and campaign against Camp 22 in North Korea for example. However, a line has been crossed which gives reason to say the US engages in torture.
Hitchens is not soft on terrorism or Islamists, neither am I. I believe it slightly undermines the moral authority we have against Islamists who seek to portray Western secular societies as corrupt and cruel - yet it also may well have saved lives. Do the ends justify the means?