September 14, 2006
The Torturer and the Tortured

Being of unsound stomach, I tuned out TV’s Monday wallow in the guilty pleasures of 9/11 and only just now came across Matt Lauer’s disturbing interview of Bush, a president.

The president’s body language comes straight from the barroom. He stands too close — into Lauer’s space, almost in his face. Since Bush is on TV, he can’t engage in the usual shoving ritual of the perpetually adolescent male. His jabbing finger, never quite making contact, has to do the job for him. Lauer stands his ground but does not jab back. It would cost him his job, as both men well know.

Lauer can use his words, though. And so he brings up the matter of waterboarding, a form of torture which Bush uses on suspected terrorists. But Bush, as both men also well know, can’t admit to that on TV. So the president, of course, lies. But then — twice, in the same prepared words — he goes on to tell us why he does the thing he doesn’t do:

I’m not going to talk about techniques that we use on people. One reason why is because we don’t want the enemy to adjust …

I’m not going to tell you specifically what’s done because I don’t want the enemy to adjust.”

Adjust? How can the enemy adjust? Grow gills?

Since the torturer won’t tell us specifically what he has done, let’s turn to somebody to whom it was done half a century ago. This is from a 1958 book in my library called The Question. (I find that it has just been reissued by the University of Nebraska Press.) The author, a French newspaper editor in Algeria named Henri Alleg, resisted a month of hideous torture at the hands of his own country’s paratroopers:

A few moments later L— came into the room. Twenty-five years old, short, sunburnt, pomaded hair, small forehead. He came up to me, smiling, and said, “Ah! So you’re the customer? Come with me” …

L— now laid on the ground a black plank, sweating with humidity, polluted and sticky with vomit left, no doubt, by previous “customers.”

I lay down on the plank. L—, with the help of another man, attached me by the wrists and ankles with leather straps fixed to the wood …

Together they picked up he plank to which I was attached and carried me into the kitchen. One there, they rested the top of the plank, where my head was, against the sink. L— fixed a rubber tube to the metal tap which shone just above my face. He wrapped my head in a rag, while Captain D— said: “Put a wedge in his mouth.”

With the rag already over my face, L— held my nose. He tried to jam a piece of wood between my lips in such a way that I could not close my mouth or spit out the tube. When everything was ready, he said to me: “When you want to talk, all you have to do is move your fingers.”

And he turned on the tap. The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could.

But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, the fingers of both my hands shook uncontrollably,

”That’s it! He’s going to talk,” said a voice.

The water stopped running and they took away the rag. I was able to breathe. In the gloom, I saw the lieutenants and the captain, who, with a cigarette between his lips, was hitting my stomach with his fist to make me throw out the water I had swallowed. Befuddled by the air I was breathing, I hardly felt the blows.

”Well, then?” I remained silent. “He’s playing games with us. Put his head under again!”

This time I clenched my fists, forcing the nails into my palm. I had decided I was not going to move my fingers again. It was better to die of asphyxia right away. I feared to undergo again that terrible moment when I had felt myself losing consciousness, while at the same time I was fighting with all my might not to die.

I did not move my hands, but three times I again experienced this insupportable agony. In extremis, they let me get my breath back while I threw up the water.

The last time, I lost consciousness.

M. Alleg, shown below in a 2004 photo, never broke under the torture and was sent away to ten years in prison, from which he escaped and fled to Czechoslovakia.



Posted by Jerome Doolittle at September 14, 2006 02:25 PM
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Let's make a rule: it's NOT torture only if Bush would allow us to do it to him, his wife, or his daughters.

Waterboarding IS TORTURE.

Posted by: chrisanthemama on September 14, 2006 4:50 PM

I wonder how fast we would learn who the REAL mastermind of 911 was, if we waterboarded Cheney and Bush?

Hey, it's "legal", yeah?

Posted by: farang on September 15, 2006 1:13 AM

I notice that the book was banned in France for ten years. How long before we have tour own shameful version of this book-you can bet they'll ban it the American way.

Incidentally, something else that was banned in France - the movie "The Battle of Algiers" has been rereleased on DVD. The new consists of three DVD's. If you can find it as a rental (it's expensive to buy), it has interviews with the director and some of the people portrayed in the movie. Interesting stuff.

Also, I find myself asking the question:

Why do Americans keep making the same mistakes made by the French years earlier. Perhaps Vietnam wasn't an anomaly but a symptom of some odd national disease that we Americans have.

Posted by: Buck on September 15, 2006 6:43 AM

That big Bush boy imagines he's tough, but it sounds like little Mr. Alleg could eat him for breakfast.

Posted by: CCRyder on September 15, 2006 9:09 AM

Actually, in the interview, Lauer jabbed back a bit with his pen, probably a reflex action.

I too wondered about how those who will be tortured in the future are supposed to adjust. And, if we are not torturing, what adjustments will be required?

But the meme continues, over and over and over again. He doing this to protect us. No thanks. There are fates worth than death. For example, eight years with Bush comes close.

I note that, in Bush's legislation, they want to spell out that which is prohibited. Clearly, this opens up a whole world of possible tortures, including listening to an interview with Bush.

Posted by: tom on September 15, 2006 9:49 AM

Adjustment? That's easy. If you know what to expect, you can mentally prepare for the horrors to come. So, for torturers, it's always: Surprise, surprise!

Posted by: on September 15, 2006 12:06 PM

Trackback: Broad language is not ambiguous

Posted by: whig on September 16, 2006 6:02 PM
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