Judge Michael Mukasey seems uncertain on the point of whether "waterboarding" is torture. Others who have tried it seem a bit more decisive. (Both of the following links were brought to my attention by Samuel Tenenbaum, who in real life
thinks about lots of things besides his 55-mph proposal.)
Here’s a video of a guy undergoing the treatment. He gets through it OK — but remember, he knew the guys doing this to him were friendlies, and would eventually stop.
Here’s a written account from another who experienced it. An excerpt:
Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration. Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia — meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.
The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again. Call it "Chinese water torture," "the barrel," or "the waterfall." It is all the same.
After reading that, and watching the video, I believe I’d agree with John McCain that this constitutes torture. (Of course, I would be loathe to argue the point in any case with the one presidential candidate who truly knows exactly what he’s talking about when it comes to torture.)
But here’s another question: If you were actually racing against the clock to prevent a terrorist attack that could kill hundreds or thousands, would you do it anyway? Or would you allow others to do it in your behalf? Or would you simply look the other way if they did?
I’ll tell you what got me thinking along those lines. It was the interview with Alan Dershowitz on the above-linked video. He didn’t seem to mind the use of the technique to stop terrorism, as long as there is "accountability." He would want the president of the United States to specifically permit it, in writing. That’s a lawyer for you. Strain at a gnat, miss the camel — or the beam, or whatever.
Personally, I wouldn’t want anybody I’d ever vote for to give permission for such a thing. Nor would I want him to give a nod and a wink, either. If some Jack Bauer-like subordinate did such a thing, without authorization, and did indeed save many lives doing so, I’d be inclined to thank him on behalf of a grateful nation, then prosecute him to the full extent of the law. Unlike Mr. Dershowitz, I think under the circumstances I could live with the inherent contradiction.
But that’s just off the top of my head.