November 9, 2007

America DOES Torture

Cartoon depicting the application of the "...
Cartoon depicting the application of the "water cure" by United States Army soldiers on a Filipino. Cover of Life magazine, Vol. 39, #1021 first published on May 22, 1902 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Republican proclamations to the contrary aside, it is well known around the world that the United States does in fact torture. Waterboarding is torture. The method has long been recognized as such by both U.S. and international law. This post explores the history of waterboarding and considers how Christianity facilitated the practice by Americans.

The history of American waterboarding is as fascinating as it is disturbing. According to William Katz, author of over 40 U.S. history books, waterboarding was one of the many methods of torture used during the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s. It was exported from Spain to the Americas in the early 1500s and became a preferred method for detecting "witches."

Waterboarding would first be embraced by the American military in 1899 while invading the Philippines in 1899.
An extensive record of its use by the United States land forces exists in the records of the invasion and occupation of the Philippines that began in 1898. As the U.S. encountered armed resistance by the liberation army of Filipino General Emilio Aguinaldo, and sank into a 12-year quagmire on the archipelago, U.S. officers routinely resorted to what they called “the water cure.” Professor Miller's study of the Philippine war reveals this sordid story through Congressional testimony, letters from soldiers, court martial hearings, words of critics and defenders, and newspaper accounts. The pro-imperialist media of the day justified the “water cure” as necessary to gain information; the anti-imperialist media denounced its use by the U.S or any other civilized nation.
It is noteworthy that the practice of waterboarding and other military atrocities was supported by the tendency of Christians to see non-Christians as inhuman savages.
From the White House and the U.S. high command to field officers and lowly enlistees the message became “these people are not civilized” and the United States had embarked on a glorious overseas adventure against “savages.” Officers and enlisted men - and the media -- were encouraged to see the conflict through a “white superiority” lens, much as they viewed their victories over Native Americans and African Americans. The Philippine occupation unfolded at the high tide of American segregation, lynching, and a triumphant white supremacy ideology.
News that the United States military had been using waterboarding as an interrogation method did not sit well with some Americans. After all, we generally don't like seeing ourselves as torturers.
The water cure became front-page news when William Howard Taft, appointed U.S. Governor of the Philippines, testified under oath before Congress and let the cat out of the bag. The “so called water cure,” he admitted, was used “on some occasions to extract information.” The Arena, an opposition paper, called his words “a most humiliating admission that should strike horror in the mind of every American.”
Fortunately for the politicians, Christianity, often blended with a sense of white racial superiority, made it easier for the American people to swallow what was being done in their name. After all, the victims of waterboarding were not Christian and thus merely immoral beasts. It did not surprise me to learn that one of the early defenders of waterboarding was a Christian minister.
In an article, “The 'Water Cure' from a Missionary Point of View,” Reverend Homer Stunz justified the technique. It was not torture, he said, since the victim could stop it any time by revealing what his interrogators wanted to know. Besides, he insisted, it was only applied to “spies.” The missionary also justified instances of torture by pointing out that U.S. soldiers “in lonely and remote bamboo jungles” faced stressful conditions.
It appears that fierce patriotism, combined with a Christian doctrine holding that non-Christians were morally inferior beings, facilitated the use of torture and the willingness of the American people to look the other way. Sadly, it appears that we are again experiencing these facilitative conditions.

A recent CNN poll indicates that while most Americans (69%) realize that waterboading is torture, 40% still support its use in interrogating terror suspects. Moreover, we've now confirmed an Attorney General who refuses to call waterboarding illegal.

To learn more about waterboarding see NPR's Waterboarding: A Tortured History.