Foreign Policy

When Christopher Hitchens offered himself as an experiment to prove waterboarding is torture

Christopher Hitchens, the writer and polemicist who shocked many on the left when he came out in favor of the Iraq War, wrote an op-ed for Slate in 2007 where he tried to argue that America did not implement “outright torture” in its use of waterboarding when interrogating suspects.

Hitchens’ ideological foes seized on his rationale and challenged him to expose himself to the practice, and he accepted. In a video published by Vanity Fair in July of 2008, he allowed himself to be strapped to a wooden plank with a mask and towel over his face.

The video was disturbing as it was groundbreaking. As the water was applied to Hitchens’ face by a masked participant, the stress and terror it brought forth was immediately apparent when he threw the metal objects he was clasping to the floor (he was instructed to release the objects when he felt “unbearable stress” to signal to the demonstrators that he wanted the waterboarding stopped).

After the demonstration, Hitchens’ feelings on the matter were settled. In the VF video, he described the experience.

“If you hold your breath, it has the effect of tightening the grip of the [towel] over your face and mouth and nostrils,” Hitchens said. “So it’s a smothering feeling as well as a drowning feeling.”

Hitchens then explained how waterboarding could produce misleading and ultimately disastrous results.

“It would be bad enough if you did have something — suppose if they wanted to know where a relative of yours was, or a lover… you’d feel, ‘Well, I’m going to betray them now, because this has to come to an end, I can’t take this anymore…'”

“But what if you didn’t have anything? What if they’d got the wrong guy? Then you’d be in danger of losing your mind really quickly, I think,” he added.

Hitchens expanded on his experience in a piece for VF titled “Believe me, It’s Torture.”

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.

I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

Watch the video below:

Featured image via YouTube

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