Face It

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July 20 2009 9:53 AM

Face It

Here's a real-life horror story, reported by Joby Warrick and Peter Finn in Sunday's

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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Abu Zubaida was waterboarded 83 times over four or five days, and Mitchell and Jessen [two CIA contractors on site] concluded that the prisoner was broken, the former U.S. official said. "They became convinced that he was cooperating. There was unanimity within the team."

CIA officials at the Counterterrorist Center were not convinced. "Headquarters was sending daily harangues, cables, e-mails insisting that waterboarding continue for 30 days because another attack was believed to be imminent," the former official said. "Headquarters said it would be on the team's back if an attack happened. They said to the interrogation team, 'You've lost your spine.' " ...

The two men threatened to quit if the waterboarding continued and insisted that officials from Langley come to Thailand to watch the procedure, the former official said. After a CIA delegation arrived, Abu Zubaida was strapped down one more time. As water poured over his cloth-covered mouth, he gasped for breath. "They all watched, and then they all agreed to stop," the former official said.

The nice way of looking at this episode is that the officials from Langley immediately recognized Zubaida's water-boarding as useless torture. The not-so-nice way is that they authorized it 83 times, and demanded 30 more days of it, before they took the trouble to see it firsthand. Apparently, one look was enough to change their minds. Too bad they didn't try that a bit earlier.

According to Warrick and Finn, an Obama administration task force is about to submit protocol recommendations for future interrogations. Here's Human Nature's proposal: No technique shall be applied until the authorizing official has witnessed it , at least on video.

I'm not ruling out water-boarding. But before you tell your pals around the water cooler that it's a vital interrogation tool or that the bastards deserve it, check out one of the demonstrations posted on the Internet, such as the waterboarding of Slate and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens . You can also read David J. Morris' firsthand account of a water-boarding, published here six months ago.

The same goes for any other violent or lethal practice you countenance from the comfort of your desk. Capital punishment? Watch an execution . Eating meat? Check out a slaughterhouse . Abortion? Peruse the video library or, if the pregnancy is yours, look at an ultrasound . And don't think that opposing these practices insulates you from the same responsibility. If you think capital punishment is never warranted, acquaint yourself with the handiwork of a few murderers . Before you defund international family-planning agencies, meet some malnourished children .

You're entitled to your opinion. But you're not entitled to your ignorance. Go educate yourself. It's worth leaving the comfort of your desk, even if you work at Langley.