Human rights groups held a briefing yesterday on "Waterboarding and Other Forms of Torture." As an added inducement, the invitation promised:
"A light breakfast will be provided."
Call it an auto-da-fé buffet.
As advertised, a heaping tray of muffins and bagels from Cosi greeted guests in the boardroom of the Open Society Policy Center downtown. On the same sideboard rested a poster of a woodcut made in 1556 called "The Water Torture": a prostrate man having his nose pinched and water poured down his throat. Nearby, a woodcut showed an executioner from the Spanish Inquisition spraying a hose into an inverted woman's mouth. Across the room: another painting of a torture scene and a photo of the torture implements.
"From the Spanish Inquisition to Japanese prisoner-of-war camps to Cambodia to Algeria, the mechanism is 'You are about to die because you can't get air,' " explained the host, Steve Rickard.
You want cream cheese or butter on that bagel?
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition -- and few could have predicted it would play such a prominent role in Washington in 2007. As the United States fights the first war of the 21st century and nuclear weapons spread across the map, President Bush has managed to build a bridge to the 15th century -- by picking a fight with Congress over the use of a weapon perfected by Torquemada.
The latest twist in this feudal feud came when Michael Mukasey, Bush's nominee to run the Justice Department, tossed away his shoo-in prospects for confirmation by refusing to call waterboarding a form of torture. The nominee says the technique is "repugnant to me" but refuses to call it illegal -- much the way some lawmakers say they personally abhor abortion but think it should be allowed.
Bush tried to escalate the fight yesterday, saying Democrats are compromising the nation's safety by asking Mukasey to comment on waterboarding. "He does not want any statement of his to give the terrorists a window into which techniques we may use, and which ones we may not use," Bush told the Heritage Foundation. "That could help them train their operatives to resist questioning and withhold vital information we need to stop attacks and save lives."
One can only imagine the national security breach that would occur if Mukasey gave his view on racks and thumbscrews.
Actually, Vice President Cheney has already given the terrorists a clue about the American use of waterboarding. He said it was "a no-brainer" that detainees could be dunked -- even though the Army Field Manual says otherwise.
Americans, many of whom get their information about medieval torture from Monty Python and Mel Brooks, might be inclined to agree with Cheney: "Waterboarding," after all, sounds like a benign cross between water skiing and snowboarding. Further confusing the discussion is the wide range of waterboarding techniques: from simulated drowning using cellophane over the nose and mouth to the actual forcing of water into the lungs.