When captured in Pakistan in 2002, Zubaydah was one of the world's most notorious terrorists. The 31-year-old Saudi had compiled in his young life 37 different aliases and was under a sentence of death in Jordan for a failed plot to blow up two hotels jammed with American and Israeli tourists. The evidence was not hearsay: Zubaydah was overheard on the phone planning the attacks, which were then thwarted. He was a key planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, was thought to be field commander of the attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole, and was involved in planning a score of other terror attacks, successful and unsuccessful. He was considered to be a primary recruiter and manager of al-Qaeda training camps.
He was, in short, a highly successful, fully engaged, career mass murderer. Think back to those pictures of workers crouched in windows high up in the burning World Trade Center towers, choosing whether to jump to their death or be burned alive. This was in part Abu Zubaydah's handiwork.
At the time of his capture in 2002, just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, there was strong reason to believe Zubaydah knew virtually the entire organizational structure and agenda of al-Qaeda around the world. He was supervising ongoing plots to kill hundreds if not thousands of people. He was, for obvious reasons, disinclined to share this knowledge. Subjected briefly to waterboarding - less than a minute, according to published reports - he became cooperative and provided information that, according to the government, resulted in preventing planned attacks and capturing other key al-Qaeda leaders.
In the six years that have passed since the Manhattan towers collapsed, we have gained (partly through the interrogation of men like Zubaydah) a much clearer understanding of al-Qaeda and the threat it poses. While the chance of further murderous attacks is always with us, it is fair to say few of us feel the same measure of alarm we did then. The diminishment of this threat is at least in part due to the heroic efforts of the CIA, the military, and allies around the world in targeting terrorist cells.
In the process, the menace of Zubaydah himself has deflated. Today, he is just another little man in a orange jumpsuit at Guantánamo. Our national concern has shifted from stopping him to figuring out what to do with him.
And to second-guessing what was done to him. Waterboarding is a process by which a detainee is strapped down and forced to ingest and inhale water until he experiences the terror of drowning. It is not torture in the traditional sense of inflicting pain; it inflicts fear, intense, visceral fear, without doing physical harm. It is a method calculated to straddle the definitions of coercion and torture, and as such merely proves that both methods inhabit the same slippery continuum. There is a difference between gouging out a man's eyes and keeping him awake, and waterboarding falls somewhere in between.
No, waterboarding does not fall somewhere in between. Unlike being shot with a Tazer or tear-gassed, there is no record of anyone being injured by waterboarding. Ever.
"Torture" inflicts pain, it leaves scars, in many cases it results in permanent disabilities and - frequently - death. Just as the Left has managed to capture the meaning of Fascism, they have now re-defined torture as anything that causes terrorist to talk.
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