Comparing Tortures

Matt Yglesias and Marc Thiessen have been fighting over Matt's calling waterboarding a technique used during the Spanish Inquisition. Yglesias:

I suppose the natural question to why these kind of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge and the Korean War-era People’s Liberal Army seem to bother torture advocates so much. The basic point made by torture advocates (when they’re not quibbling about whether or not you should call techniques poached from a torture resistance manual “torture”) is that the problem with liberals is that we’re not sufficiently willing to engage in brutal treatment of prisoners in order to compel their cooperation. But do you know who really didn’t shy away from brutal treatment of prisoners? The Spanish Inquisition! The Khmer Rouge! These are people who knew how to get the job done and it strikes me as deeply hypocritical of torture fans to turn around and get all squeamish and liberal when they hear that the inquisitors added a garrote or two into the torturing fun. The core element of the water torture is the same, even though different iterations of it are conducted in somewhat different waysthat’s the point of the Inquisition comparison.

Thiessen responds:

[If Yglesias] had read Courting Disaster, he would also know that the CIA never “forced water” down the throats of terrorists. (He even includes a picture alongside his post of Inquisitors forcing a device down the throats of a man to fill his innards with water). This is a technique called “pumping” that was employed by Imperial Japan and other despotic regimes. They would force water into their victims until their internal organs expanded painfully (the Japanese even fed them uncooked rice first which then expanded inside their bowels when it made contact with the water), and the victims passed out from the pain. The torturers would then jump on the victims’ stomachs to make them vomit reviving them so they could then start the process over again. The CIA never did anything even remotely like this. A few seconds of water being poured over the mouths of terrorists, never entering their stomach or lungs, does not compare to these tortures. Yet Yglesias and his ilk want you to believe the CIA did the same thing. They are either deeply uninformed or intentionally lying.

...[C]ritics like Yglesias really do themselves a disservice by insisting that the CIA and the Spanish Inquisition used the same techniques. It just makes them seem ridiculous. Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge. That they stake their ground on this specious argument shows how vapid their case is.

Thiessen is correct when he says that

Few Americans really believe that the United States employed the same techniques as the Spanish Inquisition, or Nazi Germany, or the Khmer Rouge.

They cannot believe that because it does not square with their whole concept of America. What they don't fully understand is how radically Bush and Cheney and Thiessen assaulted the core idea of America in their period in office.

And, yes, there are distinctions between water-boarding and water-torture. So far as we now, the CIA didn't force large amounts of water into someone's stomach. But the principle of using water as a torture tactic is the same, along with the sensation of drowning. What's indisputable is that Thiessen backs the Khmer Rouge version, memorialized below in Cambodia's museum of torture. It is exactly the same as the CIA's, with a cloth over the face so that no water actually goes down into the lungs, but tricks the body into feeling that it does. The same tilted board, the hands and feet bound, and repeated up to 183 times. There is simply no moral, historical, legal debate that this is now and always has been torture. Nor is there any debate that it is a war crime:


And here is the Gestapo's version of "enhanced interrogation techniques," or Verschaerfte Vernehmung, which I exposed at length years ago now. The Gestapo was indeed more humane than some of the Thiessen-approved techniques. I apologize for not having had the time to read Thiessen's book yet. It's obviously not because I have time on my hands. I will in due course. But on this basic point in his public posts and utterances about his disgraceful book, he is simply wrong.