Failure of waterboarding empathy by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

Ezra Klein can’t understand how, at this point, someone could hold the conviction that waterboarding isn’t torture: “If the CIA has decided to waterboard terrorists, they probably have a good reason to think that waterboarding is a pretty unpleasant thing for a terrorist to go through.”

I think it’s basically a failure of empathy. It’s pretty well accepted that conservatives tend to be less empathetic, and indeed empathy is a quality many conservatives explicitly ridicule. My sense is that some pro-“enhanced interrogation” conservatives have thought of waterboarding as something that may be painful or unpleasant, like getting your head repeatedly and forcefully dunked in cold water — which, after all, isn’t very fun — but that does no long-term damage. This seems to them much less serious than other old-fashioned techniques of administering pain. You’ll often find “enhanced interrogation” conservatives contrasting waterboarding to things like thumbscrews, breaking on the rack, and so forth.

The reason waterboarding is actually much more horrible, for the victim, than thumbscrews is that it taps straight into the mind’s “terror” mainline by triggering a hard-wired response to the experience of drowning. But imagining why that experience is so awful requires taking a moment to empathize with someone who’s being waterboarded, and conservatives started rejecting the idea of seeing anything from the point of view of “the terrorists” around September 12, 2001.


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