July 11, 2008
Torture redefinedBy Ray Robison
Three burly men in military uniform forced me to don a mask. I could barely see through the slits in it. But what I could see made me shudder.
I was in a dark room barely lit via an observation window. Cool grins that I could only detect by pointed cheeks in backlit profile watched me though the glass. They seemed to enjoy my predicament and the thought of what would happen next. They had seen it happen to hundreds of other men and women. Now, it was my turn.
The concrete walls were cold and foreboding giving me the sense of encasement and a touch of claustrophobia. My only way out of the situation was through a cadre of musclemen; all of whom were trained to snuff out other men who couldn't hope to beat them in a fight or even outrun them in an escape attempt.
In the center of the room, I saw the shadow of a table with a cylindrical tube on top of it. Smoke wafted up and out from it. It seemed like death in spirit form filling up the tiny room.
The men made me and the other victims walk in a circle around the table in what seemed some bizarre ritual before a sacrifice. What was to be sacrificed here?
I wondered at the possibility of death from the lingering cloud as it grew towards me and finally touched me. I could catch the faint smell of something entirely new to my senses.
After we had walked for a few minutes the men made us stop. Then the interrogation began. They made us rip off our masks and expose our faces to the mist.
"What's you name!" they demanded. "What's your rank!" "Give us your serial number!"
Some of us spit out a little information. But we would all eventually succumb to the mist. Our eyes stung as if wasps had attacked them. Tears ran down our faces, not from the fright but the irritation. We could hardly breathe. Every one of us wondered if the smoke might not kill us. Who knew if we were allergic? Would it cause a seizure?
We choked. God, we are choking! Our own mucus in our sinuses began to run into our throats, cutting off our breath. Our lungs revolted at the poisonous chemical and refused to inhale it. Our soft skin membranes in our mouths and noses felt like they were on fire. It was cruel.
The man next to me spewed his stomach contents onto the floor. For a moment I considered whether it would be better to take the beating from the burly men if I punched them and made it out the door. I wouldn't get far but at least it wouldn't be in here.
Just then, then men screamed at us to get out. We broke for the door. As I hit the door one of the giants blocked it. He must have read my mind, my thoughts of bashing him, for he made me stay, a painful moment longer as he demanded my name again. I choked out a response, unsure what it had been. He pushed me out with a grin.
Then I was in the sun. The pain on my skin began to subside. Though it had been a windless day, it now felt like a hurricane as I could feel the gas roiling off of my skin in the slight breeze.
Others laughed and took photos. I was angered to be their amusement but powerless to react. I couldn't even open my eyes yet to view my tormentors.
But they weren't my torturers. They were my military trainers.
My squad had just experienced a concentrated, extended dosage of what is commonly known as tear gas or Mace. It was awful. But it was a cheap lesson to impress upon us the importance of using and maintaining our chemical protective equipment against far worse gasses we might face one day.
The effects were temporary. The pain was very real while it lasted. Our thoughts did turn to survival. Our lives were at minimal risk. There is literature to support that the gas could potentially kill you, though no deaths have been reported (as of the 1993 study I reviewed). We were forced into the chamber, most of us not having been warned of it by recruiters (some had military families and new about it but most of us didn't).
I write this in response to Christopher Hitchens recent voluntary experience of being water boarded. In nearly every significant way, the event I experienced and every American soldier experiences is comparable to water boarding.
They both cause temporary pain and choking. They cause fear. They cause one to consider the fact that they might not live. The environment was coercive, granted not as hostile as a terrorist faces, and a bit degrading as some punk takes a picture of you with snot trailing down your chin as you fight for untainted air.
I understand what Hitchens has to say. He makes a reasonable presentation of both sides of the issue of whether or not water boarding is torture. He decides it is.
I disagree. Discomfort does not rise to the level of torture. If so then the army tortured me three times in the gas chamber and every day with the pain and suffering I experienced by many miles run, pushups, and sit-ups. That physical pain is just as real, but nobody is ludicrous enough to consider that to be torture.
Fear is not torture. Do I now get to sue the producers of all those Freddy and Jason movies that scared me as a child? Of course not. Fear can be entertainment.
Do I now get to sue the army for the degradation I felt at having some smarmy punk snap away with a camera at my misery? Of course not, they now include those shots into a sort of end of basic training year-book from what I am told.
Pain, degradation, fear for your life; these are not pleasant, but unpleasant doesn't equal torture. In many ways, life is full of these things. We all experience emotional pain and most of us will experience the physical pain of aging. Some of us fear for our lives just in driving to work. We fear the inevitable, knowing that at some point all our lives will be touched by death.
Show me a terrorist who died from water boarding in US custody and I might find Hitchens' determination more grounded. Until he can show me something more extensive than temporary pain and fear, and a bit of a nighttime bugaboo reaction, then I have to respectfully disagree with his assessment.
The slippery slope argument is a weak one. Yes, all slopes are slippery. People exceed their authority and mandate all the time. We must regulate and monitor people with such power.
We all know about Abu Ghraib specifically because it shocked our consciousness by being a unique event. We didn't respond to that abuse by throwing open all our prison doors. The government punished the offenders and adjusted prison procedures. But what about the many other military detention centers in which the guards act within policy? Here too, we need to monitor those involved but it is not necessary to assume that water boarding automatically leads to eye-gauging and the like.
There is no overriding reason to consider that water boarding is torture as long as our own military personnel are forced into similar treatment as a "just in case" training measure. The only real difference is that soldiers have at some level volunteered for the treatment and the terrorists haven't.
But does that matter? Do criminals volunteer to go to jail?
Water boarding is not torture and can not be made to appear so by activists or journalists volunteering to undergo it. They may think they are giving themselves moral authority to denounce it, but they only expose their own moral vanity.