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Our silence on torture signifies tacit approval

By Nina Philadelphoff-Puren - posted Tuesday, 27 November 2007

In 1957, the French journalist Henri Alleg was tortured by the French in Algeria. In The Question, the famous book that he wrote about his experiences, he described the following ordeal. He was laid out over a wooden plank, his head wrapped in a rag and positioned beneath a tap, which was then turned on.

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.

What Alleg is describing here is the practice known as "water-boarding", sometimes also called "simulated drowning". These euphemisms conceal a disgraceful reality, one powerfully exposed by Alleg's anguished testimony.


On any measure "water-boarding" constitutes torture. One could be forgiven for thinking that such an odious practice could never be used by civilised societies. It's time to think again.

Just recently US Vice-President Dick Cheney said: "The United States is a country that takes human rights seriously. We do not torture." This was not a new theme. In December 2004, the US Justice Department stated that torture was "abhorrent", a statement that appeared to mean that the Bush Administration prohibited the practice.

But according to a recent New York Times report, nothing could be further from the truth. Just a few months later, in February 2005, the then US attorney-general Alberto Gonzales issued a secret opinion that authorised the CIA to use tactics against terrorist suspects that clearly constitute torture. As well as the practice of dousing detainees in water and then exposing them to freezing temperatures, the opinion also authorised water-boarding.

Gonzales approved these practices over the objections of then deputy attorney-general James Comey, who told his colleagues in the department that they would all be "ashamed" when the world eventually discovered what had been done.

Proponents of water-boarding argue that it is not really like the act of drowning the prisoner because it is executed under controlled circumstances. But from a moral perspective, the element of control and supervision magnifies rather than ameliorates the crime. To slowly drown another human being who is restrained, disoriented and utterly helpless is an act of unspeakable barbarity.

From a medical point of view, water-boarding is similarly indefensible. According to a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights, the practice induces a massive stress response in the victim that can include rapid heart beat and hyperventilation. The victim can also suffer nosebleeds, bleeding from the ears, facial congestion and mouth infections. Studies show that survivors continue to suffer pain in the back and head for years after the event. They also experience devastating psychological consequences, such as respiratory panic attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.


But the suffering caused by water-boarding is even more profound than these lists of symptoms. Survivors of this practice have to deal with the fact that they live in a world in which other human beings are prepared to inflict excruciating pain and suffering on them - and ignore their pleas for help.

Such knowledge is devastating. As described by another famous writer on torture, Jean Amery: "Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world … will not be regained. That one's fellow man was experienced as the anti-man remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror. It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules."

For all of these reasons, we should be deeply disturbed by the news that the Bush Administration authorised this odious practice.

Despite the gravity of this matter, the revelation has met with silence in the Australian media. Apparently, we either don't want to talk about the fact that the US has been using torture, or it's too painful to face. Such a response is clearly inadequate.

Silence about torture is morally corrosive. We need to have a national conversation about its practice of torture in the "war on terror" and our role as a major ally to a country that persists in doing it. As it stands, the public and political silence on this issue constitutes a de facto endorsement of the crime. It wrongs us all.

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First published in The Age on October 30, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Nina Philadelphoff-Puren is a lecturer in the school of English, communications and performance studies at Monash University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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