Monday, December 04, 2006

The Long History of American Torture

This is disturbing.
There are several methods for achieving water boarding’s perverse effect of drowning in open air: most frequently, by making the victim lie prone and then constricting breathing with a wet cloth, a technique favored by both the French Inquisition and the CIA; or, alternatively, by forcing water directly and deeply into the lungs, as French paratroopers did during the Algerian War.

After French soldiers used the technique on Henri Alleg during the Battle for Algiers in 1957, this journalist wrote a moving description that turned the French people against both torture and the Algerian War. “I tried,” Alleg wrote, “by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me.”

Let us think about the deeper meaning of Alleg’s sparse words--“a terrible agony, that of death itself.” As the water blocks air to the lungs, the human organism’s powerful mammalian diving reflex kicks in, and the brain is wracked by horrifically painful panic signals--death, death, death. After a few endless minutes, the victim vomits out the water, the lungs suck air, and panic subsides. And then it happens again, and again, and again--each time inscribing the searing trauma of near death in human memory.

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