Recently, the American people have been shocked by the Islamic State’s videos of their beheading journalists. We have empathized with the grieving families in an outcry for justice. According to some, ISIS is made up of terrorists, criminals, even barbarians, causing chaos and destruction in a place far removed from our day-to-day reality… but what if these words may be used to describe our own home government? What if the very organizations we empower to represent us are guilty of similar atrocities? An August 28 Washington Post article reporting on the use of waterboarding by both U.S. officials and ISIS raises these questions.
According to sources who spoke with the press under the condition of anonymity, at least four ISIS hostages were waterboarded in the same manner described by CIA prisoners: they were tied to surfaces and made to feel as if they were drowning, as a result of water repeatedly being poured over their faces. James Foley, an American journalist who was beheaded in a video released in August, was among the victims of ISIS waterboarding.
Now, waterboarding does have a history that precedes the United States. It would be difficult to prove any direct influence American waterboarding had in ISIS’s use of waterboarding – there may be a relationship of correlation between the two rather than one of causation. Also, the argument may be made that ISIS’s use of waterboarding was against innocents for the purpose of intimidation, whereas the CIA employed waterboarding as an interrogation strategy intended to prevent future violence by terrorists; however, the United Nations Convention against Torture does not make a distinction based on motivation: “torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” According to the Washington Post article, the Senate Intelligence Committee holds that waterboarding is not an effective interrogation technique. Is it torture though? The UN Convention indicates yes, and President Obama affirmed that the U.S. would hold itself to the same standard when he explicitly outlawed waterboarding upon inauguration.
Is there a perceived difference in waterboarding as employed by ISIS and waterboarding as employed by the CIA? If so, it is not a justified perception. If the United States feels responsibility for avenging these reporters’ murders, the nation needs also take responsibility for the consequences of its own crimes.