Something jumped out at me the other day as I watched Christopher Hitchens being interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN’s Q&A. Lamb asked Hitchens about waterboarding, whether or not he considered it torture. Among the many pundits who continue to weigh in on the issue, Hitchens is uniquely qualified, since he has actually been waterboarded. He called it torture. Then he said something very interesting: “The United States has always said of any regime that used it on an American that it is torture.”
No shit? Turns out Hitchens was right: following World War II, the U.S. played a central role in prosecuting Japanese soldiers for war crimes, including using what they called the “water cure” on Allied prisoners of war. In one such case Seitaro Hata, Yukio Asano, Takeo Kita, and Hideji Nakamura, all members of or contractors to the Japanese Imperial Army, were convicted of waterboarding four American P.O.W’s and sentenced to twenty years of confinement and hard labor.
And lest you think the Bush-era reversal of the ban on waterboarding was just typical “it’s okay when we do it” hypocrisy, there are also several incidents where Americans have been convicted of using waterboarding on prisoners and punished. In 1898 the United States took possession of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. American troops were soon in conflict with Philippine nationalists, and accounts of cruelty and mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of the Americans were soon widespread. The occupation of the Philippines became something of a national scandal, leading to public outcry and congressional inquiries. Eventually Army Major Edwin Glenn was court-martialed and convicted of “resort[ing] to torture with a view to extort a confession,” though Major Glenn’s punishment consisted only of a one-month suspension and a $50 fine.
Okay, so an American soldier getting a slap on the wrist for waterboarding a Filipino prisoner isn’t exactly the unequivocal rebuke of the technique that I would like to be able to point to in this debate. Luckily, that ain’t all I got. There’s also the case of James Parker, Sheriff of San Jacinto County, Texas.
In 1983 Parker and three of his deputies were convicted on multiple counts of using waterboarding to elicit confessions from prisoners. At sentencing the judge called Parker and his fellow defendants “a bunch of thugs,” and said that “the operation down there would embarrass the dictator of a country.” Sheriff Parker was ordered to serve 10 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed, and fined $12,000.
The issue seems clear to me. Throughout our history, up until the current decade, waterboarding has always been a form of torture, a punishable crime, no matter who does it, be they members of an enemy army, or one of our own soldiers, or an American law enforcement officer. It has always been a crime, it ought to be, and a free and humane nation of the sort we claim to be should never do it. President Obama, Christopher Hitchens, and law professor and former Judge Advocate General Evan Wallach (who wrote the Washington Post article and the more in-depth report which I used as a source here) are right, and those who continue to justify waterboarding and piss and moan about American agents not using it anymore are wrong.