The Religious Roots of Waterboarding

Who knew? William Schweiker develops the background of waterboarding in Sightings

… the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or “re-baptizers” since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of “water” in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ’s walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

Schweiker also takes pains to debunk the utility of torture in the face of a “ticking bomb,” which is beside the point. Torture is not about gathering information, and for the Bush administration, it never was about gathering information. Wasting effort on debunking ticking bomb scenarios anymore is simply slathering your rye bread with red herrings and gulping them down. Why does the Bush administration torture?

Naomi Klein nailed it in 2005:

… there are only two ways to govern: with consent or with fear.

Most Iraqis do not consent to the open-ended military occupation they have been living under for more than two years. On Jan. 30, a clear majority voted for political parties promising to demand a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Washington may have succeeded in persuading Iraq’s political class to abandon that demand, but the fact remains that U.S. troops are on Iraqi soil in open defiance of the express wishes of the population.

Lacking consent, the current U.S.-Iraqi regime relies heavily on fear, including the most terrifying tactics of them all: disappearances, indefinite detention without charge and torture…

So what, given the Judeo-Christian symbolism inherent in waterboarding, does this particular practice convey? Power. To be sure. But not just any power. Oh no no no no.

Think The Exorcist: “The power of Christ compels thee! The power of Christ compels thee.” Aspergillia waving. Water flying all over the bedroom.

Think W. introducing his “War on Terror” with the word “crusade.” He retracted the word, but did the will not remain?

Waterboarding, as Schweiker points out, was at its roots “a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism.” Used to this day. On Muslims. To. show. them. who’s. boss.

Think about it.

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2 responses to “The Religious Roots of Waterboarding

  1. And used from the start on foreigners, to show them they’re outsiders. Aristotle made that explicit when he distinguished between those against whom torture could not ethically be used–citizens (think the Greek of the term)–and those against whom it was okay, “slaves and foreigners.”

    Actually, the history of the relationship between power, pain and truth is a long and complicated one, secular and religious, and has the silver lining, a la the Enlightenment, of a belief that science can help doctors prove torture and get their victims asylum in the US. That story is here, Reading the Wounds , and in the interest of full disclosure, I tell you that I wrote it.

    The rending of torture from religion is in that way a blessing and a curse–it’s almost easier to appeal to state security as a justification than to God, at least in America. But the role of religion in the history of torture goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the difficulty we have discussing it in America today, where religious conversation is so often fraught.

  2. Pingback: On torture, from around the blogosphere « To Africa, from New York…

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