Waterboarding on prime time

So Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain both support waterboarding, and are happy to have this view broadcast during a televised debate during their run for the Republican presidential nomination. How depressing.

By contrast, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman Jr said they opposed waterboarding. “It’s illegal under international law and under our law,” said Mr Paul during the debate. “It’s also immoral.” He’s right.

Instead, when Bachmann says “I want to save American lives and that’s why I want the CIA to have every interrogation tool available to them so that we can win the war on terror,” she slips back to the immorality and illegality of the Bush years, a period which did great damage to the USA’s reputation for upholding human rights (not to mention great physical and psychological damage to those who were tortured and held in secret prisons for years).

To be honest, it’s quite sickening that serious politicians feel able to air these views on prime-time TV.  Replace the word “waterboarding” with “torture” and would CBS News have been comfortable broadcasting this to a large national and international audience?

Famously, in 2008 Christopher Hitchens subjected himself to a waterboarding experience in a filmed environment and was horrified with what he discovered (perhaps CBS should run that film some time), while Amnesty produced the horrifying 90-second video (above) a few years ago - which still chills the hell out of me. Again, I’d like to hear what Bachmann and Cain think of the morality of subjecting powerless prisoners to this near-death-by-drowning experience after watching the Amnesty film.

The pro-waterboarding Republicans are content to say that waterboarding is not torture (that it’s a technique or a “tool”), but the United Nations expert on torture, Juan Méndez, the UN’s Special Rapporter on torture, begs to differ. Indeed, he notes that the use of euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” is really a tacit admission of the immorality of these types of torture (see page 42 of his new book, Taking A Stand).

As I was saying last week, Juan Méndez is launching his book at the east London offices of Amnesty tonight, so if you’re in the area and free this evening – do come down. I’ve been reading the book, and it’s a fascinating and very humane account of how he himself survived torture in Argentina in the 1970s and how he is now, as he said in a BBC Radio 4 interview this lunchtime, taking a very “victim-orientated” approach to combating torture in his UN role. He is also concerned that the long-promised “Detainee Inquiry” into allegations of UK complicity in torture and other abuses could be stifled at birth (Amnesty is calling for improvements).

With Méndez’s book two things leapt out at me. One was that he was Amnesty International’s very first Argentinian prisoner of conscience in 1976. A strange distinction. I wonder how many there have been since.

And another was that in 1978, during the World Cup in Argentina, the Dutch football squad – then the best in the world, as Méndez says – went to the trouble of paying a public visit to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the group of mothers campaigning for news of their relatives who had been “disappeared” by the military junta. As you may remember, the Dutch team lost to Argentina in the finals in 1978. I like to think they actually won the moral game by a clear margin though …

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