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Fatwah / July 17, 2008
By John Dolan

Stop the presses! Christopher Hitchens just noticed that waterboarding is torture!

Hitchens announced the news like he’d brought it down from Mount Sinai, in a Vanity Fair article. “Believe me,” he told a waiting nation, “it’s torture.” Well, yeah. It usually is, when it happens to you. When it happens to somebody else, it’s “extreme interrogation.” I thought everybody over the age of 5 knew that, but as usual, I misoverestimated the media. Hitchens’ tame little torture session is the biggest S&M video on the web since “9½ Weeks.”

Hitchens’ video is totally fake — there’s even soft-rock background music playing on the video, better music than you usually get at the dentist’s office, and his “interrogators” treat him more like a client getting a mud pack at a spa than a real suspect in Iraq. That makes it even more disgusting that Hitch caved in after only 11 seconds of having water poured over a towel on his face. Eleven seconds! Think about the timeline here: For five long years he supported this stuff when it was happening to other people. Once it happened to him, he needed exactly 11 seconds to see the light.

Of course if Hitchens had been a real Iraqi suspect, they’d never have had to waterboard him at all. They do that to tough suspects, not wimps like him. In a real torture cell, everything would be a lot tougher from the start. For example, Chris wouldn’t be in the nice dress shirt and slacks he’s wearing on the video. He’d be naked — a gross image, what a lifetime of booze and lying does to the body, but we have to be hard-nosed here — because keeping the prisoner naked is basic interrogation strategy, especially with a culture as horrified of gettin’ nekkid as Arabs are. You’ll recall that in those Abu Ghraib pictures, the prisoners were naked.

So that’s fake already, and the video gets faker as it goes. The guys “interrogating” him are fat, middle-aged, mild-mannered dudes. They don’t even yell at him. A real suspect in Iraq would be snatched off the street, smacked around until he passes out, stripped and dumped into a cell with a hood over his head. He wouldn’t be able to sleep off his misery, either, because sleep deprivation is one of the oldest, most effective tortures. The interrogators would maintain this schedule for hours, days, weeks, depending on how well and how soon the victim breaks down. When they think he’s ready — like, they notice with satisfaction that he screams like a steam whistle every time he hears footsteps in the corridor — they drag him out of his cell and strap him onto that waterboarding table.

Well, Chris is a busy man and didn’t have time for all that background research, so what you see in this video is a guy who hasn’t been so much as slapped or yelled at. Who probably just finished a 10-martini lunch at some upscale restaurant. That’s ridiculous enough, but the interrogators make it even more ridiculous with their little introduction to the torture session. One guy says, “All right, listen up, I’m going to give you some instructions …” Then he tells the fat man on the table, “We’re going to place metal objects in each of your hands,” and if he feels “unbearable stress” at any time, all he has to do is drop the objects and they’ll stop.

I’ve had dentists who did root canals on me without being that nice; they stuck to “this is going to hurt.” More to the point here, putting the victim in “unbearable stress” is, uh, the whole point of torture, or “extreme interrogation,” or whatever you want to call it. The last thing you’d ever do is give the victim a sense of power, like he can stop the process by dropping a “metal object” on the floor.

That kind of etiquette is what you get from those expensive dominatrixes English dudes like to get whipped by, or those nerf BDSM sites that talk about “consensual power exchanges.” What reminded me most of those BDSM sites is the “code word” they tell Hitchens he can use to stop the waterboarding: “That word is red, R-E-D.” They ask him if he understands and he says, “Yes, sir.” That “sir” only added to the ridiculous porn feel here, like Hitchens was paying a hundred pounds an hour to have Baron Whipsong or Lady Cruella, whichever way he likes it, wear out their riding crop on his eager little bum.

The real thing isn’t nearly so nice. After you’ve been beaten on bruises (which hurt more each time) for a few days, they slam the cell door open, screaming abuse at you, kick you to your feet and take you down the corridor, slamming your head into the walls as often as they feel like it, and strap you down. And all the time they’re screaming: “OK, you worthless (Arabic obscenity here) — We’re through with you! We don’t even want you any more! Ever drown before, (obscenity)? Ever go swimming head-first, (obscenity)?”

If you remember “The Big Lebowski,” you can get a better idea of what waterboarding is like by remembering the scene where the Dude walks into his bungalow, where Jackie Treehorn’s yuppie thugs are waiting for him. The blond one grabs the Dude’s hair and runs him headfirst into the toilet, screaming, “Where’s the money, Lebowski? Where’s the money, shithead?” See, the point is to show overwhelming, terrifying power over the suspect, not give him little safety words.

But all that niceness doesn’t matter once the torturer’s helper takes a plastic milk container full of water and pours it, bit by bit, over a towel covering Hitch’s face. The “metal object,” whatever it is, drops after 11 seconds. And of course these fake interrogators are all over Hitch, making sure he’s OK. That’s also totally fake, but why bother listing any more fake features of this nonsense? The truth is that anybody who’s been through as much dentistry as I have knows that nobody holds out under torture. It’s not just the pain, it’s the fear of the pain. I used to try to be a hero like the ones in my war books every time I went to have a root canal from the mean old Armenian who did our dental work. He scrimped on the Novocain, so I had plenty of scope to practice. And I learned the same thing any sane person knows by the time they grow up: Nobody can resist torture. Just like anybody knows what having water poured over a towel on your face is like: It’s like drowning. Duh. Anybody who wanted to know that already knew it.

So why does Hitchens make such a big show of just realizing it now, after five years of supporting it? To me, the answer’s easy: He’s withdrawing from Iraq, making a big Jesus-on-the-cross demonstration, like a public punishment, for supporting the war all this time. By getting himself tortured in this half-assed way, he gives himself a reason to see the light, desert from the Neocon forces before it’s too late. Karl Rove won’t be happy, though, because the last thing the GOP wants is for people to start realizing what we’re actually doing in Iraq. Reminds me of the debate about abolishing flogging with the cat-o’-nine-tails in the British Navy. The first time the bill was introduced, everybody laughed at how ridiculous a notion that was. Then somebody thought of having a real cat-o’-nine-tails introduced to the House of Commons, a bloody old Exhibit A. Nobody said a thing; they just voted unanimously to forbid it.

That’s all it takes to change anybody’s mind about torture, getting one little 11-second whiff of it, even if it’s nowhere close to the real thing. The interesting thing is not that Hitchens changed his mind; it’s the strategic thinking that made him decide to do it now. The timing of this little martyr is the key here, and what it tells you is that Hitchens is declaring martyrdom and getting out. He just unilaterally withdrew from Iraq, and in only 11 seconds.

This article first appeared on Alternet on July 2, 2008.

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