The Wall Street Journal reports on three young men who decided to waterboard themselves to decide experientially if it was torture:
Three Young Men Try Waterboarding And Tell the Tale
By Yochi J. Dreazen
RIO RANCHO, N.M. — One night last month, Jean-Pierre Larroque drove into the desert here, lay down in the road and waited for one of his best friends to waterboard him.
Just a few hours earlier, the 26-year-old Peace Corps volunteer had been debating with two close friends whether waterboarding is torture. Finishing up a pizza dinner, Mr. Larroque casually suggested that the three settle the matter by trying it out for themselves.
They filled a two-liter Coke bottle with water, grabbed a small towel and headed to a vacant patch of dirt road in this suburb of Albuquerque. With a video camera rolling, one of the friends draped the towel over Mr. Larroque’s face and began to pour.
Waterboarding is the centerpiece of a bitter political debate about the Bush administration’s methods of interrogating terrorist suspects. The nomination of Attorney General Michael Mukasey was almost derailed by his refusal to take a clear stance on the technique, and Mr. Mukasey angered Democratic lawmakers anew yesterday by again refusing to say whether waterboarding is illegal. The Central Intelligence Agency has been embroiled in controversy over the destruction of tapes showing CIA officers waterboarding terrorist suspects. Waterboarding has been a subject in recent Hollywood movies, including the Matt Damon film “The Bourne Ultimatum” and Reese Witherspoon’s “Rendition.”
But waterboarding, which induces the sensation of drowning, is an abstract issue for most Americans. Few are familiar with the details. Even fewer know anyone who has been interrogated, let alone tortured.
Some elite military personnel are waterboarded to prepare them for possible capture, but it is not part of conventional training. One civilian policy maker known to have been waterboarded is Daniel Levin, a high-ranking Justice Department lawyer who subjected himself to it in 2004 to see whether it constituted torture; he decided it did. Republican presidential front-runner John McCain, a veteran who was harshly interrogated while imprisoned in Vietnam, thinks it’s torture, too.
The number of regular Americans who have waterboarded themselves is small. Some do it out of curiosity, some as a prank. All are voluntarily experimenting with something the U.S. military — along with most human-rights organizations — considers torture.
Waterboarding has been in use since at least the Spanish Inquisition. Many medical professionals warn that it can be fatal. In Senate testimony last fall, Allen Keller, a physician and professor at the New York University School of Medicine, said that waterboarding creates “a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water.” For those who have gone through waterboarding, the long-term effects can include panic attacks, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr. Keller warned at the time.
Kaj Larsen, a military veteran and journalist, had himself waterboarded on camera for a segment on Current TV, the left-leaning, youth-oriented cable channel created by former Vice President Al Gore.
In an interview on National Public Radio, Mr. Larsen said the experiment was an attempt to “let the public decide for themselves whether this is the kind of behavior we should be engaging in.” He told the interviewer it induced “sheer panic” and felt “like having a hot coal in your chest that you can’t get out.”
Wesley Sherwood, a teenager in Knoxville, Tenn., says he and his friends decided to try it to win an online dare contest hosted by the Web site Makemeking.com.
A video posted on YouTube begins with Mr. Sherwood mugging for the camera as his friends strap him to a sheet of plasterboard, cover his face with Saran wrap and douse him with water. He holds up well until they drape a towel over his face and waterboard him a second time.
After a few seconds, Mr. Sherwood begins thrashing wildly and breaks the board with his head in an effort to get loose. The video, which has been viewed nearly 60,000 times, ends with Mr. Sherwood looking pale and very somber.
“You can’t help but feel that you’re going to drown,” he says in the interview. “You get a bottomless-pit sensation in your stomach and it’s like all of the bad feelings in the world rolled into one.”
Mr. Larroque and his two friends, Walter Gaspar, 27, and Trent Toulouse, 27, had frequently talked about whether waterboarding should be considered torture.
“It doesn’t leave a mark like if someone put a cigarette out on your face, and it’s not going to kill you,” says Mr. Larroque, a rail-thin man with wavy hair and stubble on his face. “So the question we kept coming back to was whether waterboarding could be torture if it mainly affected your mind.”
Trying It Out
On Dec. 11, the three friends got together for pizza and beer at Mr. Gaspar’s house. They were watching cable-news reports about congressional efforts to ban waterboarding when Mr. Larroque and Mr. Toulouse began to joke about trying it out for themselves.
The conversations turned serious as they discovered that waterboarding required no training or equipment. Mr. Larroque found a “How To Do It” guide at Waterboarding.org, which opposes the practice. It said the only things needed were an inclined surface, a container of water and a damp towel or piece of plastic wrap. The plastic wrap is put over the mouth, leaving the nose and eyes uncovered. The water is then poured into the person’s nose, filling his sinuses. The plastic, meanwhile, prevents the person from expelling the water. With a towel, the cloth is used to cover the person’s whole face before the water is poured.
Mr. Larroque, who will move to Uganda in February to begin his Peace Corps work, says it was clear from the beginning that he would be the one waterboarded. Mr. Toulouse, who is studying psychology in Canada, didn’t want to be the subject. Mr. Gaspar, who works as a waiter in Albuquerque, participated reluctantly.
“I just didn’t like the idea of waterboarding my best friend,” Mr. Gaspar says. “It seemed a little outside the realm of Saturday-night antics.”
That left the question of where to do the waterboarding. Mr. Larroque, who wanted to film the experiment, proposed doing it in Mr. Gaspar’s house, where the lighting would be best. Mr. Gaspar vetoed the idea. “My fiancée would be a little unhappy with me if she found a huge puddle of water in the house with Jean-Pierre passed out next to it,” he recalls reasoning.
Mr. Gaspar suggested going to an undeveloped part of town not far away. It was just after 10 p.m. when Mr. Gaspar drove with his friends to a narrow dirt road called Progress Boulevard.
The initial plan was to have Mr. Larroque lie on the hood of the car, but he kept sliding off. Instead, they spotted a short stretch of road with a modest incline.
With Mr. Gaspar filming, Mr. Larroque lay down on the frozen ground with his arms at his sides and his head leaning back. Mr. Toulouse poured.
On the videotape, the water hits Mr. Larroque for about 10 seconds before he jerks upright, sending the towel flying.
In a posting on his blog, Mr. Larroque said he was surprised by how fast his air supply ran out. In other circumstances, he says he can hold his breath long enough to swim the length of a pool.
“Waterboarding is like a one-way valve,” he said in an interview. “You’ve got water pouring in and the cloth keeps you from spitting it out, so you can only exhale once….Even holding my breath, it felt like the air was being sucked out, like a vacuum.”
It left no lasting physical damage, making waterboarding arguably “a more humane” way of forcing information out of an otherwise uncooperative prisoner, he said.
On the other hand, Mr. Larroque remembers feeling blind panic as his air supply ran out. Willingly inducing similar feelings in another human being would be torture, he believes.
“This leaves no mark, no trace. It’s almost like the ideal way of torturing someone,” he said. “This is torture 2.0.”
Write to Yochi J. Dreazen at firstname.lastname@example.org