Answer: Hate the South

This Friday marks the first anniversary of one of the meanest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a liberal pen. It is Sara Robinson’s piece for Alternet (picked up by Salon) on “conservative Southern values” as an existential threat to our republic. While there’s a glimmer of truth to Robinson’s portrait of what she calls […]

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”

No blackout of love

Who do you think wrote this? It wasn’t the Quakers.

Because war is contrary to the mind and spirit of Christ, we believe that no war should be identified with the will of Christ. Our churches should not be made agents of war propaganda or recruiting stations. War thrives on and is perpetuated by hysteria, falsehood, and hate [—] and the church has a solemn responsibility to make sure there is no blackout of love in time of war. When men and nations are going mad with hate it is the duty of Christ’s ministers and His churches to declare by spirit, word, and conduct the love of God in all men. In time of war it is our Christian responsibility to prepare for peace. We would, therefore, urge our churches to think and work toward a Christian social order in which a just and lasting peace can be realized.

That statement, according to conservative Christian dissident Laurence Vance, came from the Southern Baptist Convention. The year was 1940 — early days in the “good war” that many of us regard today with something like religious veneration. It would be easy to cynically dismiss this, to associate the Baptists of that time with the opportunistic pacifism of American fascists (such as the Lindberghs) who agreed in essence with Hitler’s ideas. Except that the language of this appeal seems to draw on the Baptists’ dissenter origins, when they and their Quaker brethren, with other religious misfits, condemned all moves by the state to associate piety with obedience to power.

What I find most striking in the statement is the warning against a “blackout of love.” This was at a time when Americans were earnestly putting out lights and covering windows in case of a pre-emptive raid from the Luftwaffe — a fear that seems quaint in hindsight, but was taken as seriously at the time as any of our current geopolitical fears. Very well, this Baptist author writes, cover your windows, but don’t put out the light in your hearts. Continue reading “No blackout of love”