George Packer on Hitchens’ Waterboarding Experience

Over at The New Yorker, George Packer on Christopher Hitchens’ account of being waterboarded:

The new essay about his voluntary waterboarding in the woods of North Carolina has the usual degree of exhibitionism, but it also shows why Hitchens’s weaknesses are almost inextricable from his strengths. As in the piece about the soldier, he describes his sensations and emotions with admirable exactness; he strikes a balance between self-presentation and self-effacement (always apologizing for mentioning his own feelings); he moves easily between the particular moment and the larger concern. And as with the earlier essay, he pulls up short. “If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” Hitchens concludes when it’s over, citing Lincoln on slavery, “then there is no such thing as torture.” This is powerful testimony, but another writer would have made it his starting point. The fact that waterboarding is torture forces certain questions on anyone who has supported the war on terror as vehemently as Hitchens and who, in the past, has been far quicker to criticize its critics than its excesses. This is the beginning of an argument with himself—not craven self-denunciation, but a genuine effort to draw out and clarify the hard trade-offs and ideological confusions that the past years have forced on all thinking people. But instead of having this argument, Hitchens places it in the mouths of others: the waterboarders on one side, a specialist in interrogation named Malcolm Nance on the other. In other words, he gets out of the way just when one would want him to interrogate himself. Here is exactly the limit to Hitchens the essayist.