Q&A: Waterboarding

Is waterboarding deadly? Some people say it isn’t and I don’t know what to think.

Not normally, but a torturer can botch this and kill the victim.

So, normally, waterboarding involves covering the victim’s face with cloth, and them pouring water over it. Water that gets in their mouth will trigger the gag reflex, and while the water is being poured, any attempt to inhale will pull water in, so it “simulates” drowning.

The asphyxiation is real. While the water is being poured, it’s impossible for the victim to breathe. If the torturer never stops pouring, then they will suffocate the victim.

Normally, the procedure is to pour for short periods of time, and then stop, giving the victim time to breathe, before continuing.

It’s kind of telling that waterboarding has been used in countertorture training. If properly administered, the physical danger to the victim is minimal. However, there are a lot of potential, “points of failure,” here.

I already mentioned asphyxiation. If the victim is improperly restrained they may harm themselves thrashing around during the process. Even if they are properly restrained, this is still a risk. All of the usual hazards for asphyxiation are present, including brain damage from lack of oxygen.

This is where things become a problem. There are a lot of factors that can determine how well you can handle a lack of oxygen: Age, adaptation (if you live at a higher altitude, you’ll adapt to lower oxygen levels), medical history, (particularly any respiratory or cardiovascular conditions) can all seriously alter how resistant you are to oxygen deprivation. When we’re talking about waterboarding, that resistance is the difference between, “fine,” and brain damage, or alive and dead.

So, yes, waterboarding can kill, but that works against the goal. There are far less elaborate ways to kill someone. The primary use of waterboarding is to elicit false confessions. Because the torture leaves few visible injuries, it’s easier to present a waterboarding victim’s confession as voluntary. Of course, as with any form of torture, there will be significant, lasting, psychological damage, but that’s not going to be apparent when the victim is being publicly presented.

-Starke

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