One of my favorite places in the second half of the twentieth century was a quaint, rustic torture complex in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh: Tuol Sleng Prison. Extinction without torture is like dessert without dinner (I am nothing if not an aesthete); death of the soul should precede – not accompany – death of the body. Let a man know that he is going to die, feel that state move in excruciating stages through his various gates of pain, experience the complete demise of happiness, hope, then dignity; and only then is his removal from this sphere a work of art.
Death hasn’t precisely taken a holiday, but things haven’t been hugely exciting, frankly, since my salad days. Ethnic cleansing was a treat; Iraqi collateral damage has been uplifting; but nothing in recent years compares to my joyous romp through what history kindly dubs “The Killing Fields.”At Tuol Sleng, under my guidance, they perfected the delivery of Death Before Death. Why murder a man once, as I say, when you can murder him again and again?
The process was called “waterboarding,” which is a particularly amusing name, redolent of skateboarding, snowboarding, all sorts of lesser entertainments. It involves killing a man – drowning him – many times, without his actually expiring. The process was not invented by the Khmer Rouge: it has a long and honorable pedigree, dating back to the Spanish Inquisition. But my friends in the Killing Fields were the first true moderns to incorporate this practice: to make it an integral part of the body politic. Sometimes the word “renaissance” has real meaning.
Terror is a simple business. All you have to do is drip water into a cloth held over a man’s face, and he will feel – he will know - that he is drowning. It is false knowledge, yes, but it has the force of truth. And to know that you are dying, being executed, is an astonishingly terrible thing. It changes a man, much as rape changes a woman.On December 22, 1849, the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was executed by the tsar. A member of the Petrashevsky Circle – a group devoted to subversive ideas, such as the emancipation of the serfs – Dostoevsky had been found guilty of conspiring against the government, and was sentenced, with his equally traitorous friends, to face the firing squad.
This was before he had written any of what we now consider his great novels. He and his fellow conspirators were stripped to their underwear – it was 20 degrees below zero – and three of them were tied to poles and blindfolded. Dostoevsky stood with the next group of three. The rifles were raised.
In short, Dostoevsky was waterboarded. The execution was halted, dramatically, before the guns were fired. Amnesty was announced! One of his fellow victims, Grigoryev, lost his sanity on the spot, and never recovered.
And so it was all a glorious jape. How can this kind of thing be called “torture”? As with waterboarding, there is no physical harm to the body (although waterboarding sometimes goes horribly wrong, we’re told). The pain is mostly psychological. The results are fabulous.
In Tuol Sleng, this Death Before Death produced the most amazing confessions. Prisoners would confess to anything, rather than be drowned again. In CIA prisons, your president has assured you, waterboarding is the only reason that America remains a free and humane country.
And just yesterday, the Senate passed legislation which would make this practice legal, and – crucially – indemnify all of those who have been guarding American freedoms, through drowning, over the past few years.
Those photographs are not American waterboarding images (we await those with some excitement); they were taken, as noted, by Jonah Blank at Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia.
Now, some of you have read that the “maverick” Republican, Senator John McCain, stood up bravely last week against his party – the Party of Death – to ensure that such japes were not committed in the future. (John McCain is soft on terror, and a bit of a candy-ass in general; not the kind of pansy I would want in my foxhole, when I could be huddled shoulder to shoulder with, say, a fighter pilot like George Walker Bush.) The senator received assurances. No waterboarding, McCain announced; in fact, no false executions of any sort would be tolerated in future. The maverick won!
So why am I happy? Legal experts – professors at Yale, that sort of thing – read yesterday’s bill, and declared with certainty that none of these assurances have been enshrined in law. Maverick McCain has been given these assurances before, and they proved false then; do we have any reason to assume that he hasn’t been lied to this time?
The waterboard is here to stay.
I don’t see an immediate return to the Killing Fields. Relatively few men will be driven to madness by this practice, and of those few, some will in fact be guilty of crimes. My kind of Death Before Death involves the wholesale torture and slaughter of the innocent; that’s something your president has delegated to the Iraqis. But I am pleased to see a small pinch – a soupcon – of Tuol Sleng added to the broth. That and the repeal of habeas corpus are today’s warming news: with great subtlety, the American legal system has been spiced up in a way hardly to be dreamed of before the advent of my chosen president.
This may not be the Golden Age of Torture, but I can be pardoned a frisson of nostalgia.