“This is a Viet Cong captive being waterboarded,” I said to the class after fast-forwarding through a videotape from Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A Television History.” We were studying the Vietnam War in the context of the Cold War.
“You can see that South Vietnamese intelligence officers have placed a cloth over the captive’s face and are pouring water on it. This gives the captive the feeling that he is drowning as the water goes into his mouth and up his nostrils when he tries to breathe.” After viewing the whole clip, I asked: “Does this look like torture to you?”
Each had watched intently but none would offer an opinion. Then I explained that after we captured the third-highest-ranking official in al Qaeda, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, he was waterboarded and gave up information that eventually led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. “And,” I told them, “Khalid Sheik Mohammed planned the September 11th attack for Osama Bin Laden.”
I waited for that to sink in and said, “Is this torture?”
“It was worth it if it led us to Bin Laden,” said a boy.
“Okay,” I answered, “But is it torture?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, Khalid Sheik Mohammed wasn’t a prisoner of war. He was a terrorist, so I don’t think the Geneva Conventions apply to him,” said another boy.
“Is it torture?” I repeated.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
“Left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens agreed to be waterboarded to see what it was like,” I explained. “He said it doesn’t simulate drowning: ‘You are drowning, or rather being drowned. . . . Believe me, it’s torture.’”
I played the Hitchens clip from Youtube.
“So what do you think?” I asked. “Is it torture?”
“It’s all right if it was done on the guy who planned the September 11th attacks,” said a girl. “He killed 3000 people.”
Back in September I’d shown them a “Today Show” recording of the events of that day to give them a feel for what happened in 2001 when they were only four years old. “The Bush/Cheney Administration called waterboarding one of their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’” I explained. “Is that a euphemism for torture?”
“It’s all right if it’s against terrorists,” said another boy.
“Is it torture?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Open your books to page 885,” I said. “Look at the Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights.” I asked a girl to read it.
Dutifully, she read: “‘Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.’”
“Thank you,” I said. “The part where it says, ‘nor cruel and unusual punishments imposed’ is what I wanted you to see. Our country has a long tradition of outlawing torture, but that would be against American citizens.”
“Yeah,” said the boy. “These people were not citizens and they weren’t prisoners of war either. They were terrorists. They had no rights. It was all right to waterboard them to get information that would be useful in fighting them.”
“Obama’s CIA Director, Leon Panetta, said the information about who Bin Laden’s courier was - someone who carried messages back and forth between him and others in al Qaeda - came from Khalid Sheik Mohammed while he was being waterboarded during the Bush Administration,” I said. “With that information, the CIA tracked him down and began following him. He led them right to the house where Osama Bin Laden was living with three of his wives. Without waterboarding, the USA might never have gotten Bin Laden. Other officials in the Obama Administration, however, deny that.”
“So, who thinks it was all right to waterboard KSM?” I asked.
Half raised their hands.
“Who things it was wrong?”
Three hands went up.
“Eric Holder, Attorney General in the Obama Administration, is investigating our CIA agents who waterboarded KSM and two other terrorists while Bush was president. He’s trying to build a case against them for war crimes,” I explained. “That might be one reason other officials in the Obama Administration deny that waterboarding had anything to do with discovering where Osama Bin Laden was hiding.”
President Obama was interviewed about killing Bin Laden on “60 Minutes” Sunday night, but Steve Croft didn’t ask him any tough questions,” I continued. “However, Obama’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon was interviewed on “Fox News Sunday,” and Chris Wallace asked him, ‘Why is shooting an unarmed man in the face legal and proper . . . but [waterboarding] Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is just as bad an operator, isn’t?’”
“Donilon said, ‘[Waterboarding] is not consistent with our values.’”
“Then Wallace said, ‘But shooting an unarmed man in the face is consistent with our values?’”
“Donilon said, ‘We’re at war with Osama Bin Laden.’”
“Wallace said, ‘We’re at war with Khalid Sheik Mohammed.’”
I played the above exchange for the class and asked, “Did Donilon answer Wallace’s questions to your satisfaction?”
“Not really,” said a boy.
Other students shook their heads.
“Another thing,” I continued. “Generals appointed by President Obama made new ‘rules of engagement’ for our soldiers fighting in Afghanistan - many of them former students from this classroom - under which our guys can’t shoot until they’re shot at first. And, if they’re shot at from a group of civilians, they can’t shoot back at all.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said another boy. Others nodded agreement.
“And now, even in cases where they capture Taliban terrorists who they’ve videotaped planting IEDs or ‘Improvised Explosive Devices,’ or ‘roadside bombs’ as they’re sometimes called, which have killed hundreds of our soldiers, and these terrorists have been tested to reveal explosive residue on their hands, they have to be released after 96 hours. Our soldiers know they’re going to plant more bombs and still they have to release them! This is discouraging to say the least, and it makes it much more risky our our guys.”
“Our Commander-in-Chief is putting our soldiers at risk with these rules of engagement,” I continued, “but his staff is telling us what a ‘gutsy decision’ Obama made by approving a strike on Bin Laden from the comfort and safety of the White House.”