Hitchens' experience of waterboarding: a further step in the banalisation of torture

In June 2006, I was asked by a fellow blogger to join a group of bloggers writing against torture (their list can be found at the end of my blogroll).

I produced the following article. It was a réaction à chaud in which the very idea of a group of bloggers, living in democracies defined as the 'free world', having to write against torture practised by their own governments, seemed to me the proof that we were in the process of banalising torture.

What shocked me at the time was the 'talk' about torture. Not because we shouldn't talk about it. But because the general context for this talk was, in our 'freedom of speech loving societies', one for debate and not one for a clear condemnation.

Ever since, the debate has been going on. And to my great dismay, Christopher Hitchens, the 'liberal' Neo-con, has revived this 'talk' by actually experiencing waterboarding himself and publishing about his experience in vanity Fair 'Believe me it's torture'.

I find it shocking that the man who champions the intellect is asking us to 'believe'...him, that the man who champions reason hasn't been able to come up with a principled theoretical categorisation of waterboarding as torture. He tried to convince himself of the utility of torture on the basis of a very basic vulgar Benthamian concept of moral utility ( and what if torture does actually work, should we go for it ?), but never on the basis of its moral value to Human beings, the torturer and the tortured. And at the end, 'professor' Hitchens had to try it all by himself.

After having tried to solve, from the depth of his own 'liberal' intellect, the theoretical underpinnings of waterboarding, and failed to come up with a clear categorisation, hesitating between 'extreme interrogation' or 'outright torture', Hitchens had to finally experience the thing himself, then turned to us asking us to 'believe' him that waterboarding is actually torture, as if there was some theoretical doubt about the whole thing.

I find it shocking that the mainstream press, the bloggers, and everybody else, including Hitchens ennemies, are lauding him as the great intellctual, the courageous one, who confirms, from the intellectual depth of his own experience, that waterboarding is torture. I find it shocking that not one publication explicitly refers to the article Hitchens published last year in Slate in which he flirts with torture. I find it shocking that this last year article, in which Hitchens hesitates in categorising waterboarding, between 'extreme interrogation' and 'outright torture', is nowhere to be found on the web (if anyone can find it for me, please send me the link or the whole text). I find it shocking that The Guardian reports about Hitchens' experience under the title 'Want to know if waterboarding is torture? Ask Christopher Hitchens'

I find it shocking that Hitchens cannot talk about torture simply. He has to add adjectives like 'outright torture' as if there were different kinds of torture. Can we talk about freedom as 'outright freedom' ? Can we talk about Human rights as 'outright Human rights'? Can we talk about free speech as 'outright free speech'? As if we can put some conditions on these basic values. And as Hitchens has taken upon him the challenge of the bloggers to actually experience waterboarding, I find the challenge very silly, opening up the field of moral abominations to personal experience, and condoning torture, and I find that the challenge has given the advocates of torture one more occasion to prove their point, despite Hitchens' conclusions.

Just think a bit, if Hitchens was able to take it, so will everybody else. Just think, if we need to actually experience an abomination to know that it is an abomination, moral judgement becomes unnecessary.

Just think that when a public 'intellectual' can feed his own fame, and that of those who challenge him, by not only debating torture but also experiencing it, and publicising this experience, something is definitely wrotten in our world.

To Hitchens I say: I am not a 'believer' and, in terms of moral judgement, my knowledge comes from my moral reasoning and from what I think of what a man or a woman ought to do to others, not from my own experience of abomination, and definitely not from a celebrity journalist with dubious moral judgment.

Hitchens's experience of waterboarding and the context surrounding it are testimonies to the evergrowing banalisation of torture. I am not reading anymore about this silly piece of public exhibitionnism, failed intellect, and complete moral failure.

Courrier International has linked to this post in the blogs section.


99 said...

I don't think it's possible to disagree with you more than I do on this.

Hitchens rescued us from becoming so inured to this subject that we ignore it, and even if he ultimately fails to get torture stopped, or to turn our lazy and bloated tide, what he did was extremely courageous. More than any batch of random thousands of people would do.

Torture is banal indeed if you can overlook the beauty of Hitchens' sacrifice here.

Mr. Tough Guy Intellectual, who clearly would rather die than show weakness, let us watch him lose it almost instantly; admitted he couldn't even tell he wasn't yelling the code word; gave a detailed account of his weakness and fright; admits he wakes in the night with smothering feelings and starts to have panic attacks when he has to start breathing harder.

He couldn't have been clearer about the horror, the lasting harm.

For anyone with any insight at all, Hitchens has just given us the gift of settling the question that never should have been a question, and there has been one, no matter how much we hate that, in the popular mind. None of them will be able to yammer that crap about it not being torture now without having to work much harder to try to discredit him. Quite possibly they will have to give up that tack altogether, and try something else in their efforts to excuse the inexcusable.

Even if none of this is so, Christopher Hitchens just did the most he or anyone possibly could for all of us -- something most of us would not do at all, for anyone -- and your ingratitude is stunning.

I disagree with Hitchens ardently on many things, and frequently find fault with his delivery and personal habits, but this cannot be taken away from him. I'm glad he's an American.

It was pure. It was selfless. He did it for you. He did it for everyone. And he damn well told the entire truth, to the point of personal humiliation to do it.

Where is your conscience?

Anonymous said...


Je suis toujours tes commentaires et tu as absolument raison a propos la banalisation de sauvagerie dans le culture occidantal. Par ailleurs, je suis tellement impressionne de la beaute de ton anglais. Tu es encore une ecrivaine douee.

Perseve pour jamais!

ton ami,

PS - au moment que je me sens situe, je reviendrai dans le communaute blogger...

Sophia said...

Dear Behemoth,

I hope that you are happy in your married and professional life. Thanks forleaving this comment. I am eagerly awaiting your comeback on the blogosphere.

Sophia said...


Being a flip flopper and a public buffoon, Hitchens does not deserve my respect and he is doing a great disservice to those who oppose torture...(Believe me !)

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