If we don’t build it, they will come

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Attention Conservation Notice: This is about local politics in Birmingham, Alabama, but also about sustainability throughout North America.

Now that the new city council is seated, it’s high time to revisit The Dome, as we like to call it. Despite the strong case against expansion of the city’s convention complex, there is political momentum in favor of floating the bonds and summoning the bulldozers. Mayor Larry Langford actively promotes the project with pep rally techniques (banners, rallies, T-shirts) that evoke his campaign slogan, “Let’s do something!”

Many people, probably including a majority of Birmingham municipal voters, support the dome in the faith that large public works bring prosperity to a community, and that Birmingham has been too slow to perform such works. And when it comes to a project like providing reliable public transit, or passable school buildings, they are absolutely correct. Birmingham has buses that routinely break down or lack air conditioning, and its school buildings often leak, flood, or stink. Investing in projects that solved these problems would bring nothing but benefits.

But not all public works are created equal. Continue reading “If we don’t build it, they will come”

Looking back at the “New” South

The Alabama Archives continues its curiously named “ArchiTreats” lunchtime lecture series, and I really want to drive down to Montgomery and attend the one this Thursday at noon. For one thing, I’m a fan of the speaker, Marlene Rikard (Samford University). For another, the topic is the inescapable “New South” — a concept that was […]

A brief history of waterboarding

American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (<cite>Life</cite> magazine cover, 1902).
American soldiers torture a Philippine captive as European despots look on with delight (Life magazine cover, 1902).

“Waterboarding” is the latest name for a form of water torture going back to the Middle Ages in Europe, but condemned as illegal and immoral since the 1700s. Banned from Europe, water torture persisted in other parts of the world, including some European colonies, until the mid-20th century.

In the United States, water torture first appears as a means to terrorize slaves. It persists into the 20th century as a routine punishment for African American convict laborers in the Deep South. Most notoriously, it was used by U.S. soldiers on Philippine captives during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). After that war, the technique shows up sporadically in some domestic police departments as a way to force detainees to confess to a crime.1

The “water cure”: Here’s a description by 1st Lt. Grover Flint, 35th U.S. Infantry, of a typical field interrogation in the occupied Philippines:

A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit or stand on his arms and legs and hold him down, and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick … is simply thrust into his jaws … as a gag. In the case of very old men I have seen their teeth fall out — I mean when it was done a little roughly. He is simply held down, and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose …, and that is kept up until the man gives some sign of giving in or becomes unconscious.… A man suffers tremendously; there is no doubt about that. His suffering must be like that of a man who is drowning, but who can not drown.2

Soldiers and officers called this technique “the water cure,” after a type of alternative health care, popular in the 1800s, in which applying cold water to the body was considered therapeutic. By using this term to name an excruciating torture, the soldiers were making what ethicist Jonathan Glover calls a “cold joke” — a humorless witticism that distances the torturer from his own action by making nonsense of the victim’s suffering.

As far as I know, no one has yet uncovered the origin of the term “waterboarding.” But if it was coined by the men who practice it today, it probably also originates in a cold joke — possibly an attempt to call the torture an “extreme sport,” by analogy with snowboarding, sandboarding, dirtboarding, etc. [Update: Why we call it waterboarding] Continue reading “A brief history of waterboarding”