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Is waterboarding torture?

This article has been originally published on Return Of Kings.

It’s been some time since waterboarding was in the public eye, so I’m not in the trend right now. Nevertheless, emotionalism and human rights are topics that persist like a chronic disease. Kids who drown in comfort seek escape from boredom by meaningfully protesting against something in the streets of big cities. Every week I am at least once bound to be harassed by zealots of some good cause.

My Facebook feed happened to spit out a joke about waterboarding today and I got curious. For a topic that attracts such huge amounts of verbal incontinence, few people seem to know anything about it. Fat slobs or experts who don’t seem to have much experience with pain go around telling everybody how inhumane it is, so that everybody can be part of being against something so terrible they lack the words to describe it.

But anyway, what much is there to know about waterboarding for such a deep, intellectual discussion? It’s not black magic. You need a can of water, a cloth and you need to lie down. What the hell keeps me from trying this?

The experiment

People sometimes say that you need to experience something to be able to talk about it. I don’t agree, not generally. But it does, on an emotional level, make you more convincing.

Unlike this guy, I didn’t prepare a great set up. I lay down on a flat floor, put a shirt over my head and spilled water over it. Now you may say that it is not representative and I need an inclined platform. You would be right, but it is irrelevant to my point.

Yes, it’s nasty. Having been close to death one or two times in my life, I have a sense for the kind of panic that grips you and it is indeed similar. I managed to breathe in some watery air through the wet cloth while I wasn’t pouring further water on it, but during the pouring, the discomfort was unmanageable for me.

I didn’t go as far nor am I as trained as the guy in the linked article, but I can easily imagine how – if you took it to the edge –  you would make statements such as:

I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You know you are dead and it’s too late. Involuntary and total panic.


If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I’d take the fingers, no question.


It’s horrible, terrible, inhuman torture. I can hardly imagine worse. I’d prefer permanent damage and disability to experiencing it again. I’d give up anything, say anything, do anything.


It’s torture. No question. Terrible terrible torture. To experience it and understand it and then do it to another human being is to leave the realm of sanity and humanity forever. No question in my mind.

You can see how the author struggled to express the horridness of the emotion through language. Being bombarded with brutality in Hollywood and in the newspaper drags down at the meaning of words until the idea of death does not produce more than a tingling in the stomach. In the competition for attention, more extreme words and formulations are used all the time and when you really want to express something profound, language just isn’t able to anymore.

Thus, you happen to overuse words like “really”, use phrases like “words can’t describe” or repeat words, like in the above example. I remember being in that situation while trying to describe my Ayahuasca ceremony where I saw the devil under the influence of psychedelic drugs. I remember telling people that “fear” wasn’t enough, that it was far beyond that, that it was “terror” or worse. You start comparing your experience to other horrible things you heard of and stating that you would rather have that other horrible thing done.

You can see how such strong emotions can make you overreact in face of an otherwise comfortable life. Your whole body protests and your mind is flooded with the thought: This cannot be. This must not be.

I think that’s a natural reaction. Life has shaped the biological body in order to sustain itself. Obviously, this means that the fear of death must be an absolute. At a certain point, the programming takes over.

This loss of control  is so far beyond daily experience that you may easily be tempted to scream trauma! 

In fact, I suspect that the illusion of an unbreakable mind lies beneath most trauma. To be broken means, for a coddled modern citizen, to enter a permanent state of cognitive dissonance, unable to reconcile his untouchable soul with the loss of control.

About emotionalism

So it is not surprising that you often hear the statement If you had experienced it, you would think otherwise.

There is a profound implication in the way we overuse strong words today. It desensitizes us to the point where we expect extreme things to be just somewhat exhilarating.

We see brutality in cinema and feel somewhat uncomfortable. We feel offended by sexual proposals. We work ourselves up over tweets. We read about any kind of victim in the newspapers and it shocks us.

These kind of feelings, to us, have become the limits of the emotional spectrum we would call humane.

Yet nature doesn’t know limits and renders the term nonsensical. What is humane supposed to mean? If I am a human and can feel these terrible things, how are they inhumane?

It’s only a term for what we deem acceptable. And inhumane is then everything that simply can’t be, must not be. But that’s wishful thinking.

Is it torture?

Yes, of course it is torture. How the hell do we think it works?

We sit comfortably on our couch and eat popcorn while the actor on the screen heroically resists all kinds of mistreatment.

We watch motivational speeches from people who succeeded against all resistance and share their memes.

That feels great. Actually doing it does not.

The point is not whether it is torture. It is.

Think. If it wasn’t too horrible to accept and live with, how would torture be supposed to work? It’s the whole point.

Most people actually seem to think that the kind of interrogation imposed upon potential enemies of our civilizations should be humane.

If the pain and devastation of a person being tortured was acceptable, well, it seems plausible that the victim of such treatment would be able to resist it. It’s the whole point of torture to go beyond the limit of the interrogated person. To break that person.

Everything else is delusional. It’s like trying to lose fat by running twenty feet once a week while still overeating.

Do-gooders and causes

So what about the argument that you can’t do it if you have understood what you are doing? Do not unto others what you do not want others to do unto you.

I don’t buy into the categorical imperative.

Do the words of somebody who was in great distress carry great meaning?

No, they don’t. His emotions distort his perception and although this person may feel almost divine certainty in his dislike for something and consider this biological hardwiring wisdom, it is not.

A young man will feel that it is inhumane for a woman to use him, denigrate him, leave him. He will think it is impossible to accept and should not be. An experienced player will laugh at these things and say: That’s life.

There is no doubt that torture is a terrible thing. War is also terrible. Fear of death is absolute.

But the question is not whether it is terrible.

Yes, the state and people who need good public standing will play into the frame of the sheep and tell them some bullshit about white torture. Not because they really believe that, but because white-collared sheep could never be expected to have the strength of character to do a terrible thing.

And it’s simply for the reason that white-collared sheep have never experienced the distress of fear of death that would justify such measure. Why, after all, in a world that seems to run and function all by itself and produces easily accessible wealth, would you concern yourself with the dark sides of humanity? Why not simply share some of that magically available wealth and live happily ever after in equality.

A part of that is the fallacy that you can somehow eliminate all problems and have utopia.

The important question

The question is not whether it is torture.

The question is whether it leads to usable results and whether these results justify the methods used. And the answer can not automatically be no.

Strong nations have always gone through war, which is atrocious. To become and stay strong means to fight. And to fight does not mean to respect limits, to be careful. It means to break limits. The notion of humane warfare is laughable and not more than a public relations gag of a government – government being the head of a slothful, fat body who must be tricked into action by the idea that lifting weights does not hurt.

Atrocity is not an argument. Emotions are not. Torture is horrible. War is horrible. And that’s because life is meant to be precious. It’s an absolute in our brains to fear death. Yet, in a time where one is taught to empathize with practically everybody – because everybody is equal -, it is more critical than ever to distinguish between your will to live and the will to live of others. There was once a word that described this concept: Enemy.

I leave it open for debate whether torture leads to any results and whether it should be used.

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