Trump and the Waterboarding Debate

Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for waterboarding has been all over American news lately.

He doesn’t mince words. “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would — in a heartbeat,” Trump said at an Ohio rally, “Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.”

“They can chop off heads and drown people in cages, heavy steel cages, and we can’t waterboard?” Trump later asked CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during a phone-in interview.

And at a Republican debate in New Hampshire, Trump promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

The conversation has changed. Just a few years ago, I remember the debate being about whether waterboarding qualified as torture at all. We’ve gone from distancing our nation from torture allegations to arguing about whether or not torture is a good idea.

Life is never as easy at it looks on paper. I don’t believe in murder, for example, but would kill to protect myself or my family without hesitation. And I wouldn’t consider it murder.

And as we recognize the undeniable moral relativism in our universe, we have to ask ourselves when the ends justify the means. The issue becomes whether torturing someone is worth it when it saves thousands of lives, or if we should always oppose it on principle.

Americans keep debating whether or not it’s worth it, but I’m wondering if it even works.

I was about ten years old when I first learned about torture.

It was at the  San Francisco Wax Museum, a kitschy tourist trap that may as well have been the Smithsonian to a ten-year-old. My friend Megan and I were wandering through it’s eerie halls with our turquoise puppy dog umbrellas.

Stepping into the museum’s horror section, we found ourselves in a smorgasbord of torture throughout the ages. Mostly Anglo-Saxon.

One display showed a man hanging from the ceiling with a giant iron hook through his belly. The guidebook said many survived the event.

Another involved making the accused reach into a cauldron of boiling oil to fish out a pebble. They would then wrap his arm in bandages and check for divine intervention three days later. If everything had healed, he was innocent.

I remember being horrified yet fascinated by the idea of an ancient world where such things could happen. Dismemberment in the market square.

The most grisly one had to be the heavy glass jar with a candle and rat in it placed on the accused’s torso. The rat would tear through a person’s chest in a crazed attempt to escape the fire.

These frightening scenes lodged into my memory like only first impressions can. As I grew up, I remembered them again and again, each time trying to make sense of their primitive logic.

Some of the method made sense. Drawing and quartering, for example, made an example out of lawbreakers. Never plot against the king, they said, or this is what happens to you.  Vicious, but effective.

What didn’t compute, however, were tortures used to extract information: Admit you’re a heretic, or be set on fire by the Inquisition. Tell us you did it, or we’ll keep slowly dislocating your limbs on the rack.

How could anyone trust confessions obtained from torture session? Silly medieval people, I thought, with their primitive mindset and magical thinking.

Innocents might say anything just to make the pain stop. Guilty people could hold out with enough willpower. It seemed more a question of pain tolerance than truth, maybe motivated more by retribution than an attempt to get useful intel.

We may have a collective subconscious belief that extreme pain and brutal honesty are somehow linked. Apparently, when unmarried Puritan women used to get pregnant (which apparently happened, despite all the strict religiosity), they would yell out the father’s name during the most excruciating moment of childbirth.

The community accepted the paternity of the named father without question. It was believed that mothers were incapable of lying when in that much pain.

It seems like such a bizarre way of thinking to our 21st century brains, but is it really so different than believing that torture leads to honest confessions?

I think before we tackle the issue of whether torture is sometimes justifiable, we should be asking ourselves if it even works.


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