In a sense, it all began with the urge of top officials of the Bush administration to turn torture into an essential go-to option in the war on terror — that is, not just to cross but obliterate a moral line so old and obvious that no “enhanced interrogation techniques” should have obscured the crimes being committed from American consciousness.

By Karen J. Greenberg  TomDispatch  April 10, 2015 

gammaman (CC BY 2.0)

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Sometimes a little stroll through history can have its uses.  Take,  as an example, the continuing debate over torture in post-9/11 America.  Last week, Stephen Bradbury, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, testified before the House Judiciary Committee about waterboarding.  In defending its use, Bradbury took a deep dive into the past.  He claimed that the CIA’s waterboarding of at least three of its prisoners bore “no resemblance” to what torturers in the Spanish Inquisition had done when they used what was then called “the Water Torture.”

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As part of his defense of the techniques used by the Bush administration to gain information, Bradbury went out of his way to play the historian, claiming that the water torture of yore differed from today’s American-style version in crucial ways. The waterboarding employed by interrogators during the infamous Spanish Inquisition, he insisted, “involved the forced consumption of a mass amount of water.”  This led, he claimed, to the “lungs filling with water” to the point of “agony and death.”  The CIA, on the other hand, employed “strict time limits,” “safeguards,” and “restrictions,” making it a far more controlled technique.  As he put it:  “[S]omething can be quite distressing or uncomfortable, even frightening, [but] if it doesn’t involve severe physical pain, and it doesn’t last very long, it may not constitute severe physical suffering”—and so would not qualify as torture.  Bradbury summed up his historical case this way, “There’s been a lot of discussion in the public about historical uses of waterboarding,” but the “only thing in common is the use of water.”

To remind readers, Bradbury is the government lawyer who, in 2005, drafted two secret memos authorizing the use of freezing temperatures, and waterboarding in CIA attempts to break terrorism detainees. Nor is Bradbury the only one with the urge to distinguish any current American proclivity towards torture from the barbaric procedures used until the Enlightenment set in. As Senator Joseph Lieberman commented last week, citing another medieval torture technique, waterboarding “is not like putting burning coals on people’s bodies. The person is in no real danger. The impact is psychological.” Waterboarding isn’t torture, both men claimed, because it leaves no “permanent damage.”

Visiting the Water Table

It’s here that our stroll down history’s narrow, medieval lanes comes in.  Anyone curious to test Bradbury’s historical accuracy should consider a visit to one of the dozens of torture museums that dot Europe’s landscape. Why not, for instance, the bluntly named Torture Museum in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.  Unlike other European memorials to torture, such as the Clink Prison in London and the torture museums in Florence and San Gimigniano, this modest two-story building in a former private home in Prague’s historic Old Town is a relative newcomer to the continent’s penchant for recording its past mistakes.

Upon entering one of a series of gloomy, cave-like rooms, filled with the implements of the dismal craft that had its heyday from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, you would notice a range of mechanical devices and iron tools (also illustrated in drawings galore), all once meant to pierce, prod, or otherwise drive some poor heretic into the agony of confession.  Often in those years before video cameras were available, all this was done in public sight.

And then, as you wound your way through the exhibit, you would come upon one of its centerpiece displays—the “water torture table” to which Bradbury alludes.  After you’d checked out the period drawings of prisoners being tied to the edges of the flat tabletop or read about the interrogation method in which the water-filled abdomen was struck repeatedly with heavy blows, you might stop for a moment to consider the more detailed explanatory text nearby.

It would inform you that, over the course of these centuries, several water torture techniques were developed, one of which involved “inserting a cloth tube into the mouth of the victim [and] forcing it as deep as possible into his throat. The tube was then filled slowly with water, swelling up and choking the victim.”  This is, in fact, an almost exact description of what has been described as CIA-style waterboarding.  Former interrogation expert Malcolm Nance, once an instructor for the U.S. military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training program—said to have been the template for some of the interrogation techniques the Bush administration developed—himself experienced waterboarding.  He has described the process this way:

“Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

“Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject.”

The similarity in methods across a torture gulf of at least four centuries would have been but the first of many striking lessons for our modern moment from a tour of this museum, only steps from the famed Charles Bridge with its own medieval and religious statues, a museum modest in everything but its subject matter.  Perhaps the eeriest lesson would be just how many of the torture techniques illustrated in these rooms are still painfully recognizable, are, in fact but minor variations on those practiced today in America’s name.

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By Published On: April 11th, 2015Comments Off on Karen J. Greenburg | Visiting the Torture Museum: Barbarism Then and Now

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