Sunday, May 8, 2011

Waterboarding and Hypothermia

With the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, many commentators have jumped at the opportunity to claim that extra-legal prisons, like Guantanamo Bay, and enhanced interrogation techniques (see torture) have been the key to the government's ability to knock off #1 from the FBI's Most Wanted list. While these claims ought to be questioned, as all pronouncements from government ought to be, for the purpose of this entry, I'll grant that claim: one of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay was unwilling to hand over vital information, but after being waterboarded and left in freezing cold prison cells, the prisoner gave the information necessary to find Al-Queda's leader.

The question we are still left with is: does that make these interrogation techniques legal? And, more important, moral? Is it permissible to engage in these activities just because they give us information that might save lives? The answer is no.

In the 1940's, Nazi doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners. Most notably, they did a wealth of research on how the human body reacts to freezing temperatures. Doctors forced young and healthy men into icy vats of water after placing a thermometer into the subject's rectum to record their internal temperature. They collected data to see how the human body responded to the harsh cold. It is reported that around 100 people died due to these experiments.

Through the death, though, the Nazis learned a great deal. In fact, the Nazi research is effectively the entirety of mankind's knowledge on how the human body reacts to freezing and hypothermia, and its not a stretch to see how this sort of information has saved human lives.

Here is the dilemma that the supporter of waterboarding must face: if waterboarding is perfectly moral, because it helped provide vital information to save lives, they must be willing to admit that people like Josef Mengele were not monsters of medicine, but rather misunderstood saviors of mankind. The principle is the same in both: the horrific pain inflicted upon a few people (or the people killed) is less important than the new data that could be extracted from that pain.

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