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Oldie, 2/21/09: Yet Another Reason to Admire Christopher Hitchens

Warning: This post contains a plague of run-on sentences.

As one of those "quiet types," I harbor a not-so-secret admiration for the biped bull in a china shop who WON'T put up and shut up until a lot of people are listening closely. While the rest of us little angels modestly hide our opinions or diffuse them with diplomacy, people like Christopher Hitchens are on the front lines, writing and acting simultaneously before a live audience, knowing that cheers and jeers are likely to follow in equal measure, but reasonably confident that one day, their truth will become so universal that they will no longer have to hammer at it, because a comfortable majority will have finally adopted it and convinced the rest.

So Hitchens may shock and irritate when he suggests that Mother Theresa was, at heart, an incurably unmarried woman who was willing to do a lot of hard work mainly because she liked the publicity, rather than some ethereal symbol of supernaturally imposed ideals. He slices through the philosophical theories of religious belief by asserting that religion "poisons everything," daring those who disagree to show him where he's wrong. Hitchens, to use a terribly overworked phrase, never declines to "walk the talk."

Last summer, Hitchens took a break from grousing about religion to sharpening the debate over torture, and the US's proper role in conducting it. Is waterboarding torture, or isn't it? he asked himself. And rather than sift through other people's answers, he decided to find out first-hand. He contacted the military unit that originally taught American soldiers how to survive "enhanced interrogation" at the hands of enemy captors, then shifted to teaching them how toperform such tasks.

In his Vanity Fair article, Hitchens describes the secret location, the indemnification agreement (releasing the military from liability in the event that Hitchens didn't survive the experience), the prearranged signal or safe word that would tell his obliging hosts to cease and desist (not unlike the technique used in consensual S&M activities), and finally, the main event.

As he relates it, Hitchens probably lasted less than half a minute before panic set in at having water poured into his face and all breathing blocked.

He was terrified.

And then, when his breathing and heartbeat were getting back into the normal range, he said he wanted to try it a second time.

Hitchens is 9 years my senior and some of his descriptions struck a sympathetic chord. Like me, he suffers from chronic, disruptive "acid reflux and mild sleep apnea," as well as the memory of a near-drowning incident in youth. He is overweight, non-athletic, and a heavy smoker. Other than the smoking and childhood trauma, his age, physical circumstances and sedentary lifestyle could easily describe me. It could also, realistically, describe a nameless, faceless "foreigner" swept up in an ambush and flown 7000 miles to a prison where journalists and lawyers are barred. Or an American soldier, seemingly in top condition, but possessed of all the human characteristics that make prolonged survival under drowning conditions impossible.

Christopher Hitchens' purpose in chronicling his experience with waterboarding was to offer a first-hand, non-simulated look at this highly controversial practice. My purpose in posting this is to express my respect for the courage it took to subject himself to his voluntarily, at the risk of his very life.

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