Christopher Hitchens' article in Vanity Fair laying out his recent voluntary exposure to waterboarding is fascinating stuff, as most of Hitchens' writing is (I exclude here his nasty treatises on atheism). After undergoing this most celebrated of techniques, he declares that it is indeed torture.
He may be right, to him, waterboarding is torture. But let's face it. How likely is Hitch to ever have faced any other torture technique? Is there any sense of comparison or relativity here? Is there some magic line over which an interrogation practice steps in which it is no longer subject to relative evaluation? Is loud music constantly played equivalent to waterboarding, equivalent to torture? Is waterboarding equivalent to some of the techniques imposed on our prisoners in Viet Nam?
The point here is that the Bush Administration actually sought to try and define torture in a manner that would give it tools of persuasion it felt were necessary to prosecute the war on Islamic fascism. Those tools included waterboarding which, it found, was on a scale of practice significantly below those thought to constitute torture under the famous ":
"We conclude that for an act to constitute torture as defined in Section 2340, it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent to intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture under Section 2340, it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years. We conclude that the mental harm also must result from one of the predicate acts listed in the statute, namely: threats of imminent death; threats of infliction of the kind of pain that would amount to physical torture; infliction of such physical pain as a means of psychological torture; use of drugs or other procedures designed to deeply disrupt the senses, or fundamentally alter an individual’s personality; or threatening to do any of these things to a third party."
The problem with calling waterboarding torture, no matter how uncomfortable it may make the subject, is that it opens the door to greatly diminishing the real physical and mental effects which make true torture an abhorrent practice. I don't doubt Hitch found waterboarding uncomfortable, and given his 15000 cigarette a year habit, life threatening. I don't doubt that Khaild Sheik Mohammed also found his experience uncomfortable. But by the definition put forward by the Bush Administration (one that I believe to be well-reasoned), waterboarding is not torture.
Aside: though this is a serious subject, I am reminded of the great Monty Python sketch in which the Inquisitor, vested in the robes of the Church, sentences a non-believer to "the comfy chair".