Even if you’re not a fan of Christopher Hitchens, you’ve got to respect someone who volunteers to be tortured for the sake of a story. As Hitchens relates this week in Vanity Fair, with accompanying video, he ventured to a secret location “deep in the hill country of western North Carolina” to discover “as nearly as possible what real waterboarding might be like.”

The question, of course, is whether waterboarding — a sort of controlled drowning that the United States admits to having used on al-Qaeda suspects — really amounts to torture, or is just what the Bush administration calls an “enhanced interrogation technique”.

Late last year, Hitchens argued in Slate that there are techniques of “extreme interrogation” and techniques of “outright torture” and that waterboarding is the former, notes Jon Henley in The Guardian. So the writer’s incensed critics challenged Hitchens to try it for himself. Which, amazingly, he did.

Hitchens’s verdict is unequivocal: “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

As luck would have it, Hitchens’s report coincided with the revelation by the New York Times of just where the administration has been getting its “advanced techniques” from. A chart used for a class in interrogation at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 was found to have been copied verbatim from a 1957 study of Chinese techniques used in Korea.

All that had changed was the omission of the title: Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.

The Times had already revealed back in 2005 how what started out as a study of torture for defensive purposes — where Americans, in Hitchens’s words, “were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions” — was transformed into a set of techniques for Americans to use, oblivious to the fact that the communists were not even trying to get decent intelligence but simply to break the will of prisoners.

There has been deafening silence on the subject from the Bush administration’s usual supporters — including presidential candidate John McCain, who was himself tortured by the communists as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. After initially making a brave stand in Congress against the administration’s abuses, McCain later gave in and agreed to legislation that permitted “enhanced interrogation” to continue. Only last month he attacked the Supreme Court for allowing Guantanamo prisoners to challenge their detention in the courts.

Andrew Sullivan put his finger on it:

How is it possible to know that everything John McCain once said on videotape for the enemy was false, because it was coerced, and yet assert that everything we torture out of terror suspects using exactly the same techniques, is true? …

Nothing more accurately exposes the classic moral error of the Bush administration and its enablers in war crimes. If the enemy tortures, it defines their moral evil and all intelligence gleaned from such coercion is self-evidently false propaganda. If we do it, it isn’t wrong, and it leads to good intelligence.

Got that? And these people have the gall to describe their ideological opponents as moral relativists.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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