Does Its Use of Waterboarding Make ISIS More or Less Barbaric?

When ISIS beheaded James Foley, pundits in DC pointed to it as proof of the organizations barbarism. Never mind that Saudis were busy beheading people for sorcery in the same period. Not to mention America’s latest penchant for executing people with DIY cocktails of lethal chemicals that leave them gasping for breath for hours.

It’s very confusing discerning what does and does not qualify an entity as barbaric these days.

The WaPo report that ISIS subjected Foley and others to waterboarding and mock execution makes it all the more confusing.

At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.

James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA’s use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


French journalist Didier Francois, who was imprisoned with Foley, has told reporters that Foley was targeted for extra abuse because his captors found pictures on his computer of his brother, who serves in the U.S. Air Force.

Francois said Foley was subjected to mock executions — something suspected al-Qaeda operative Nashiri also endured while being held in a secret CIA prison, according to a report by the inspector general of the CIA. The Justice Department did not sanction mock executions.

Note how carefully the WaPo skirts the political minefield and journalistic primer of whether to call waterboarding torture or not. It, unlike NYT, still refuses to call waterboarding torture, probably because its editorial page routinely serves as a lead defender of waterboarding as a value “enhanced interrogation technique.”

Nevertheless, our adversaries have moved beyond dressing up prisoners in our signature orange jumpsuits to using the techniques much of the political establishment has defended for the last decade.

That’s not surprising. It’s sickening. But it’s also going to present an interesting challenge to the DC punditry, as it tries to villainize ISIS in advance of expanding the war against it.

Update: Katherine Hawkins has convinced me that I’m unduly harsh on WaPo’s language here. I think the language in the piece is interesting, but the implications of the story are quite clear.

2 replies
  1. Evangelista says:

    Few things are more amusing, in a macabre way, than Americans gasping “BARBARIC!” and alleging themselves to be shocked and aghast at the execution by decapitation of an innocent. It brings to mind the conflict betwen American and Chinese perceptions of capital punishment, where Americans express shock and horror that Chinese take the condemned out from the courtroom and shoot him, while Chinese express shock and horror that Americans lock the condemned up for years in a life-and-death limbo, torturing him with a tantalization of maybe, maybe-not, instead of simply getting the business over. And it brings to mind the enthrallment of America and Americans with “lethal injection”, after gas-chambers and electric-chairs for capital punishment, which brings to forefront the botched jobs of Oklahoma and Iowa, of course. And then there is the predilection every state in the United States manifests for religious-style prosecutions, where the conviction precedes the trial and every effort is turned to proving the pre-judgment, whether correct or not, at least somewhat “justifiable”, which system has a convition of innocents rate that is not even marginally better than vigilante “justice and lynch-mob records illustrate.

    And the People who condone and support and justificate the horrors of the human sacrifice system they are used to express horror and shock at what is about the quickest and most painless form of execution there is. And they call it “barbaric”, and those who use that method, instead of one that produces two hours of writhing and gasping, “barbarous”… …

  2. scribe says:

    Not like certain voices on the internets didn’t tell the world a fucking decade ago that what the USG was doing in torturing, waterboarding, abducting and rendering, roughhousing (“walling”), mock executions, real extrajudicial executions, the bug treatment (remember that one?), and so on would not end there but would generate blowback of … just this sort.

    But that was shrill and surely would never happen.

    If I were more cynical than I already am, I would just put it down to the pieces of garbage who manage to inhabit high-enough positions in the military and government and supporting industry looking to create a continuing Threat so as to guarantee a regular series of problems needing to be “solved” (i.e., exacerbated) with expensive weapons systems and other tech and poor, redneck kids operating them.

    But that would be cynical and could never happen because we’re Americans and therefore “a global force for Good”. (I love that line. Stole it from a Navy recruitment ad.)


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