When I was twenty-one years old I made friends with a man I met at my church. I had just finished college and was, in a few months, planning to go to New York to attend the Columbia School of Library Service, a program I’d chosen in order to be near my boyfriend, of sorts, the late Father Malachi Martin. In the meantime, I was living with my parents again and going to the church I’d attended all my life.
The man I met was popular and charismatic. He befriended me and I was flattered, enough that I reconsidered my decision to go to New York to be with a much older man who could offer me nothing but a doomed clandestine affair. While such reappraisal was perhaps healthy, it all went terribly wrong. My new friend at church was charming, but he was also a con-man and a criminal who’d targeted a lonely, confused young woman. Within a couple of weeks of meeting him, I woke up groggy in a motel room, drugged, raped and battered. Keeping me docile was part of his plan to rob me of my savings, a scheme in which I was forced to cooperate under various sorts of duress. These included rape, beatings, and threats to carve me up with a knife and set me on fire. But the worst thing he did, the thing I remember most vividly when I wake up suddenly in the night, was to pour liquid over my face as I lay, bound, on a motel bed with my head hanging over the edge. He needed to keep me drugged and I had resisted drinking the doped water and orange juice he’d given me earlier. So he forced me, pouring the liquid over my nose and mouth, until I had no option but to swallow and inhale. This is what it feels like to drown, I remember thinking as I struggled to breathe through the fluid invading my lungs. The physical terror of those moments, repeated several times in the course of my ordeal, exceeded any shock I’d ever known, even that of being raped with a .357 magnum.
I know now that it was an involuntary physical response that made the experience so horrific. Waterboarding induces terror, regardless of one’s determination to resist or endure. I had no choice but to cooperate, suggesting, I suppose, that, as a means of inducement, the technique is efficient. The victim’s survival instincts turn against him and the gag reflex does all the work. If done properly, this method of coercion is expedient and less damaging than some forms of violence. But is it moral, or compatible with the principles of decent society? No. Not unless we are willing to countenance all other forms of torture, including practices too barbaric to mention. During the Spanish Inquisition, the tortura del agua was sometimes used, right along with the strappado or the rack. Waterboarding may seem less injurious than other forms of brutality, acts which no civilized person would ever endorse. But it is nearly impossible to endure. It’s been almost twenty-six years since my experience of waterboarding, a term I didn’t know at the time. Not a day passes that I don’t remember the sensation of imminent death and the terror it still inspires. If my security, or the illusion thereof, depends on condoning this practice, the price of safety is extortionate. Having been forced to participate in my own torture and abasement, I prefer to face the dangers of this life without the specious guarantees which this “professional interrogation technique” claims to provide. For me, this will never be just a simple question of semantics.
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