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The Question

12/04/07 7:55AM By Mike Martin
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Mike Martin, commentator
(HOST) There's been a lot of discussion lately about what constitutes torture. And commentator Mike Martin has been looking for an answer.

(MARTIN) I was recently given a book called The Question, and I can't stop thinking about it. It's gotten under my skin and won't leave me alone. The Question is the firsthand account of a French journalist who was imprisoned and tortured by his own government during the Algerian War. Henri Alleg wrote the book when he was still in prison, and it was the first book to be banned in France since the 19th century.

In The Question, Alleg describes how the French authorities arrested him, gave him pentothal, and tortured him at length. The French arrested Alleg because his leftist newspaper, Alger Républicain, supported Algerian independence. The Question is a tough book to read and is all the more powerful because of Alleg?s matter-of-fact style as he describes being subjected to beatings, to high-voltage electric shocks, and to what is commonly known as waterboarding. It?s also powerful because Alleg eventually gains the respect of his torturers, who, he realizes, will carry deep scars from the experience, too.

I next ran into The Question when I was helping my sixth grader with his homework. His homework was to do some Internet research to find out if waterboarding is legal. He learned that waterboarding was used by the Khmer Rouge, by Japanese soldiers during World War II, and even by the Spanish Inquisition. He also found out that accidental drowning often occurs during waterboarding. And together we found an excerpt from The Question online, where Alleg describes in painful detail what happened after French soldiers tied a rag around his head, strapped him to a board, and dangled him backwards under running water.

So it was easy for us to conclude that waterboarding is torture, but is it legal? It turns out that, since 9/11, the issue has been clouded by the current administration?s policy of using "strenuous interrogation techniques" on prisoners captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, citing security reasons, officials have refused to say, yes or no, whether or not they consider waterboarding illegal. And when our new Attorney General, Robert Mukasey, refused to give an opinion on the question, our own Senator Patrick Leahy had the best line, pointing out that a law against murder doesn?t require a ban on baseball bats. That makes sense - even to my sixth grader.

But some politicians still hesitate to answer the waterboarding question head-on. For example, in a recent debate, Senator John McCain criticized his fellow Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, for refusing to say that waterboarding is torture. McCain said it?s unbelievable that we?re even still debating the waterboarding question, since it?s clearly against the Geneva Conventions. McCain insisted that Americans don?t act like Pol Pot or Burmese dictators.

In French, to "put someone to the question" is to torture, and the title of Alleg?s book plays on this double meaning. And now, fifty years later, unfortunately, the question is the same.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.
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