Waterboarding Is Torture: 3 Things You Need to Know

February 10, 2016

Still from 'The Stuff of Life'

For years, Amnesty International has witnessed public figures repeating misconceptions and inaccuracies about waterboarding.  This American debate on torture has mostly got it wrong – here are three realities you need to know:

  1. Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation

People who take the time to learn about Waterboarding see how horrific it is.

But many people don’t. Media and public figures often describe waterboarding as a form of “enhanced interrogation”—a euphemism that rationalizes and sanitizes torture.

As Malcolm Nance, combat veteran and former chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, wrote here:

“Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

And as he told Congress:

Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration – usually the person goes into hysterics on the board…When done right it is controlled death.

Though the New York Times has abandoned the term “enhanced interrogation,” much of the mainstream media are still using it.


  1. The atrocities of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and other armed groups don’t make waterboarding okay

Many think this: however abusive the United States may be, it doesn’t rival its enemies.  And implicitly if not explicitly: torture and other human rights abuses might be justified in light of the atrocities committed by armed groups like the one calling itself Islamic State.

This is a theme that popular culture indulges in, especially the post-9/11 genre of national security thriller shows like “24” and “Homeland.”

If “Homeland” reflects conventional wisdom, it’s that yes, the U.S. is doing terrible things to people—in the face, though, of some really terrible things being done by other people.

Especially since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we’ve witnessed a renewed sense of uncertainty and ambiguity about human rights in policy debates. In the U.S. and in countries around the world, we’re hearing questions like:

  • Mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy, but don’t we need it to prevent terror attacks?
  • Freedom of expression is important, but should people really be allowed to promote extremist views?
  • And of course: torture and indefinite detention without charge are wrong, but shouldn’t they be available tools, in limited circumstances, in case they’re needed?

In some ways, these questions reflect a genuine need people have for security, especially in the face of attacks by armed groups and individuals.

Many public figures are posing security and human rights as a novel dilemma. But we should all take a breath. These aren’t new questions, not really.

People the world over have faced the issue of how to respond to war, atrocities, and crises—for decades. The international human rights system was built after World War II as a repudiation of its horrors by developing human rights protections.

So, no public figure should be claiming that the answer to human rights abuses is to commit still more human rights abuses. That’s an idea the world rejected a long time ago.

  1. Whether torture “works” is the WRONG question.

Many public figures have argued that torture “works.” In the aftermath of the Senate report on torture published last December, that question has dominated media debates. Former CIA officials released a book about the Senate torture report criticizing its findings that torture was ineffective.

But what does it mean to say “torture works”? Works how, according to what metric?

Torture is not only illegal, it has had disastrous and far-reaching consequences: it has stained the U.S. government’s reputation and undermined its credibility to promote respect for human rights. According to some in the military, it has put U.S. armed forces at risk.

Matthew Alexander, a former U.S. interrogator in Iraq, writes here that “torture and abuse costs American lives”:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq…It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse.

The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.

Join us in demanding justice and accountability for torture: learn more here

This is an edited and updated version of a post from August 2015.