Never mind how I came to be sitting in my friend Karen’s living room, along with her crusty grandfather, taking notes on a TV special about torture of war-prisoners under the Bush administration. Gramps had been a prisoner of war in World War Two, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, and he was keenly interested in anything about the treatment of POWs.
During the segment on Bush & Co.’s legal maneuvering to justify torture, Gramps simmered like a kettle on the fire, occasionally bursting loose with comments like: “Hogwash!”, “Unconstitutional!”, and “No way in hell!” When the program moved on to the military’s means of hiring local informants to obtain supposed Al-Qaeda prisoners, he boiled outright. “Idiots!” he roared at the screen. “Offer an Arab money, and he’ll sell you his grandmother! You don’t get real enemy prisoners that way!”
Karen did some seething herself, and I understood her problem; she was a pacifist, a humanitarian to the nth degree, a vegetarian – one of the Gentle People. I often wondered how she managed to live in the same house with crabby old Gramps. She finally came up with: “How do you get real enemy prisoners, then?”
“You show yourself to the enemy,” said Gramps, his eyes narrowing. “Anybody who shoots at you, you shoot or take prisoner. That’s how you know for sure. Simple.”
Karen had no comeback to that, and I had better sense than to inject myself into the family quarrel, so we watched in silence as the program went on. Finally Karen could stand no more. “Look!” she shouted, pointing to the screen. “Look at what they’ve done! That’s torture, and no mistake!”
“You call that torture?” Gramps shot back. “Cuffing the prisoners’ hands behind their backs? Hell, cops all over America do that with anybody they arrest. Putting hoods over their heads? When you’ve got enemy prisoners at a military base, there’s plenty you don’t want them to see: your numbers and weapons, for instance. Keeping them hooded and tied up while they’re flown to the POW camp? Baby girl, you don’t want enemy prisoners getting loose on a plane in the air! Dressing them in orange jumpsuits? That’s what American prisoners wear. Putting them in a barren, lightless cell for the first few days? That’s exactly what’s done to American prisoners for their first days in the penitentiary. Keeping them in solitary cells? That’s better than the nasty overcrowding you get in American prisons; at least they’ve got some privacy, and no big ugly cellmates trying to rape them. So far, I don’t see these POWs being treated worse than American prisoners here at home. They sure aren’t being starved, beaten and worked to death, like we were.”
Just then the program shifted to a scene of prisoners with their wrists cuffed to bars above their heads, and a narrator solemnly intoning: “…eventually dislocates the shoulders.” Karen pointed. “What do you call that?” she yelled.
“Nonsense!” Gramps shot back. “Yes, that’s over the line – by about an inch. That’s the least of what the Japs did to us. You soon learn that you can stand on tiptoe or hang by your wrists, so you alternate: up and down, up and down. The Japs had us doing that from sunup to sundown, and the worst we suffered was cramps afterward.”
The scene shifted to a segment on waterboarding, and Karen pointed triumphantly.
“Yeah, that’s bad,” Gramps admitted, “Until you learn the trick to it. You take a deep breath first and hold it, and you curl your tongue up in the back of your mouth to block your sinuses. When they stop pouring, you swallow the water and breathe. By the time we were liberated, we could hold our breaths like pearl-divers. It’s no problem, as long as you keep your head and don’t panic. If that’s the worst these guys are getting, they’re lucky.”
“What about the mental tortures? Keeping them awake, the noises, the flashing lights, the humiliations—“
“Honey,” Gramps sounded weary, “In combat, nobody gets enough sleep – and plenty of civilian jobs keep you short on sleep too. Loud music and flashing lights? That’s Disco! Americans dance to it! Getting paraded around naked? American college boys do that for fun; they call it “mooning” or “streaking”. Getting dressed in women’s clothes? That’s called “drag” here. It’s only humiliating if you let yourself believe it is! The ‘torture’ is all in your own mind.”
On screen, the scene displayed SERE training: teaching American troops how to resist the sort of ‘intense interrogation’ we’d just seen. “I helped with that,” Gramps commented, smiling grimly. “After liberation, we told the Army investigators everything the Japs did to us, and everything we did to resist. They learned well from us.”
“So somebody who knows what to expect,” I couldn’t help poking in, “Wouldn’t suffer much – but innocent civilians would.”
“Precisely,” said Gramps, leaning back in his chair. “And the sort of ‘torture’ that Americans are willing to do wouldn’t work on the real Bad Guys. That’s why we shouldn’t do it.
“But Bush and his idiots okayed it, so we get a bad name for it – and nothing useful out of it. That bunch of damn fools! I'm delighted that they’re all out of office.”
And Karen had nothing to say.