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The Difference Between Water and Waterboarding

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What we have here is an apparently innocuous photograph of Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saluting President Bush as he leaves the Pentagon on Friday, March 7, 2008. It is raining–hence the umbrella–although it doesn’t seem to be coming down all that hard. But of course even the smallest amount of mist or precipitation could stain the President’s tailored suit or effect its drape; at the least it might make it somewhat uncomfortable to wear. And who needs that. The photograph was used by the WP the following day, Saturday March 8th, in conjunction with a report that President Bush had just vetoed an intelligence authorization bill that would have banned the use of “waterboarding” as a CIA interrogation technique.

The President continues to insist that waterboarding is not an act of torture—after all, Americans don’t use torture!—though it is hard to imagine how having water forced into one’s mouth, nose and sinus cavity so as to create the sensation of drowning would be anything less. And in point of fact, we have brought U.S. soldiers who have used the practice to justice before military tribunals in both the Phillipines in 1901 and in Vietnam in 1968. In 1947 Japanese officers who employed the technique against American soldiers in World War II were found guilty of the use of torture by the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor.

The photograph is marked by irony, of course, but there is more. For what this photograph puts on display is the image of an administration that is habitually shielded from the world that exists outside the halls of power that here surround and protect it, as well as from the effects that its actions have in that world. Torture may “work” in the fictional universe of TV shows like 24, or in the sadistic imaginations of neoconservative chicken hawks, but elsewhere its record of usage is a consistent and abysmal failure in every regard except as a profound violation of human rights.

But don’t expect the President to understand that. For him, unwanted water is an inconvenience. For the American people it is has become an element of shame.

Photo Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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The Difference Between Water and Waterboarding

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