George W. Bush's dramatic claim in Decision Points that British lives were saved by the use of waterboarding terrorist suspects cuts through the fog surrounding the issue of waterboarding.
Anti-Bush sentiment, as well as a general anti-Americanism, is rife in Britain. For years we have been assured by a smug nationalized BBC, and various left-wing media outlets all too keen to giggle like schoolchildren at President Bush's speech, that the former president is nothing more than a simple cowboy who did only bad things such as invade countries just for oil, drown black people, and torture poor, innocent foreigners. Luckily, Americans have seen sense and elected someone as intellectual and sophisticated as President Obama.
This narrative has taken a beating since early 2009, especially with the ardently anti-British policies of the Obama administration. As Obama is beginning to look less and less like someone who knows what he is doing and more like an anti-British academic with an ideological axe to grind, Brits previously captivated by Obama-mania are now shifting uncomfortably in their seats. This twitchiness has been made worse by the consequences of President Bush's claim in Decision Points that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed prevented terrorist attacks on Canary Wharf and Heathrow Airport. One of the reasons the left have been so taken aback by Bush's statement is because it gets to the heart of the use of waterboarding. For too long the left have been trying to squeeze waterboarding into their definition of torture. In part because of this, the debate over waterboarding has become dictionary-centered in that in order to debate whether waterboarding is acceptable in certain circumstances, you first need to define exactly what you mean by "torture." This has drowned the debate in tedious exchanges of definitions by bureaucrats, academics, and elected officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
Consequently, it has been simply assumed by a large section of the public (especially with Obama declaring it to be an illegal weapon of torture) that waterboarding equals torture, and therefore, if we allow "torture" on just one person, then we are legitimizing torture on everyone. As a result "that makes us just as bad as them." Every logical step in this argument is flawed, and yet it is still widely believed.
Therefore, waterboarding, along with softer techniques such as sleep deprivation, have been abolished on the basis that "we must stay true to our principles," as if America and Britain were somehow founded on the principle that no terrorist must be kept awake past his bedtime.
What President Bush's claim has done is cut through the theoretical niceties and the dictionary definitions in order to present a solid fact: waterboarding was practiced on three people, and it prevented attacks on Canary Wharf and Heathrow Airport. These attacks would have been devastating and would have almost certainly led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of innocent British citizens.
In the face of this terrifying reality, the lefties flipping through their dictionaries for the correct definition of torture and debating the meaning of the words "necessary" and "force" look quite pathetic.
What President Bush is doing is presenting a choice. The title of his book is Decision Points, and this moment is a decision point for the citizens of both America and Great Britain. The first choice is about what we would prefer to have happened in the past -- thousands of British deaths in a terrorist attack that may have dwarfed 9/11, or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed experiencing a sensation of drowning.
Yet it also asks of us a more pressing question for the future.
The fact is that hardened criminals such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will not give up information just by having a light shone in their face (although not too bright -- we wouldn't want to permanently damage their eyesight!) These people are well-trained to resist interrogation and are ideologically motivated. They do not fear death, and they do not fear pain. In the future, there are going to be more cases where vital information can be attained only via waterboarding and similarly strong methods.
It is ultimately up to the citizens of any nation to ask themselves what they are prepared to accept when it comes to interrogation. Dictionary definitions, whether from Webster or from the United Nations, do not come into it. The British people must ask themselves, "What interrogation techniques are going too far when it comes to preventing the immediate threat of a large-scale terrorist attack on home soil?"
They must then consider the cold, hard truth that Bush's statement puts before us -- that if we prevented a terrorist attack via waterboarding in the past, then now that it has been banned, there may be preventable attacks that we will fail to stop. That means that every Brit who walks onto a subway train, or who works in a large city, or who gets onto an airplane, is less safe because of the prioritizing of perceived rights of enemies over the lives of civilians.
The true decision point for America and Britain is how we wish to continue. When interrogators working for Britain and America are faced with a terrorist with vital information about an upcoming plot, what do we as citizens tell them? Do we tell them to waterboard them, and potentially save thousands of lives, or do we stick to this newly discovered "principle" of not making life unpleasant for terrorists and put innocent Britons and Americans at risk?
With the choice put as clearly as this, there can be only one rational message to send to interrogators: make sure the towel is on tight and the water icy cold, and do not stop until they sing like canaries.