Among the most terrible things I ever see are patients “drowning” in body fluids that fill their lungs, and slowly dying for lack of oxygen. It is so miserable that when we cannot save them we routinely give these dying patients morphine and other sedatives to ease their suffering. To allow such patients to face their deaths gasping for air and desperately afraid without sedation would be torture, for them and for those of us who care for them.
It therefore seems obvious to me that an interrogation technique in which prisoners are made to feel as though they are drowning is torture. It has not been obvious to the Bush administration, however, which has allowed this technique, called waterboarding, for interrogation of terrorist suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency.
If waterboarding had not seemed like torture and therefore illegal to President Bush, one would think it might to the man the president nominated to be the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, retired federal judge Michael Mukasey. After all, Congress has outlawed the use of torture, and in the past our government has treated waterboarding as torture. American police officers who used waterboarding to interrogate crime suspects have been prosecuted for doing so. Japanese military officers who tortured American prisoners of war using waterboarding were prosecuted for war crimes after World War II.
The practice is widely condemned in American military circles because military leaders fear if Americans use it on prisoners, it will be used on captured American military personnel. The Department of Defense bans the use of waterboarding by armed forces personnel in the interrogation of prisoners, and the U.S. has court-martialed soldiers who waterboarded prisoners during the Vietnam War.
Despite this, Mukasey himself has been unable to agree with senators conducting his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture and a crime. Perhaps that’s because his bosses in the Bush administration are in a bind if Mukasey, or the American public, disagrees with them and says waterboarding is illegal, because such a conclusion might increase the chances they, or CIA interrogators, might one day be prosecuted for permitting its use.
As a physician, I have been embarrassed and appalled that my government would allow waterboarding and not recognize it as torture. Perhaps I am wrong, a waterboarding weenie in the war on terror, sensitized to this issue by nights as an asthmatic child spent struggling for air, or nights in the ER with those patients dying for air. Or maybe it really is torture; read on and decide for yourselves. (My description is based on my knowledge of respiratory physiology and descriptions of waterboarding available on the Internet, including some from American POWs waterboarded by the Japanese.)
In waterboarding, the first step is to make you helpless. Your arms are tied, legs strapped, and head held. Your face is covered with a cloth and water poured over it at a high rate so you cannot breath through the suffocating wet cloth, or water is forced into your mouth and nose. You hold your breath, knowing that the slightest intake of air will suck water into your lungs. Every defense mechanism – struggling with every muscle, twisting your head to avoid the drowning deluge – just consumes more of your dwindling oxygen reserve and shortens the time to the gasp for the air you must take. Your brain starves for oxygen, warring within itself between the senses that shriek for oxygen and those that know a single breath will bring catastrophe. A tiny inhalation through the nose sucks water painfully into your sinuses and upper airway, or sucks the wet cloth more tightly over your mouth and nose.
The losing battle continues until inevitably the instinct and need to breath overrules, so you open your mouth and gulp for air. Water rushes into your windpipe and lungs instead, causing you to cough, gasp, and suck in more water, and water in your windpipe may cause your vocal cords to spasm, closing your airway completely. The feeling of suffocation is overwhelming. Now the nerve cells in your brain are firing off like the control panel of a nuclear reactor melting down, telling you that you are dying fast. If you are lucky, at that point you pass out from lack of oxygen.
But your interrogators are good at this. Unconsciousness is a luxury for prisoners, so they stop the waterboarding just before you pass out, give you just enough time to recover consciousness, and then start again. Their goal is to make you feel like you are certain to drown, not to actually drown you, and to do that repeatedly for as long as it takes you to talk.
The war on terror has brought us to a place where the administration of an American president approved an interrogation technique first used to torture prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition, a technique that has historically been treated as illegal in American law, and is recognizable by most of us as torture. If Osama bin Laden is bombed into oblivion tomorrow he will die knowing one of his greatest victories in our war against him was causing us to abandon some of the principles we used to hold dear, and in doing so, blurred at least some of the lines between us and our enemies.
We, as a nation, are waterboarding ourselves with fear and starving for the sweet oxygen of reason in the war on terror.
Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and is on the staff of several hospital emergency rooms in the region.