Waterboarding and Leadership

The labelling of a recent case of parental abuse as waterboarding offers insights into processes of narrative-building

A recent case of parental abuse has been labelled as a waterboarding incident. The narrative developed after abnormal behaviour of a US soldier observed in public was followed-up by the local police. They discovered an incident at his home where the parent was reported to have disciplined his four year old daughter by holding her head under water.

It seems to me a clear example of how a story builds up and is captured as a narrative label. The move vivid the label, the more likely it becomes the way that the story is tagged in the mind of readers, and electronically in web-based versions which speed their way around the internet.

The reports are typified by one from the BBC

A US soldier has been charged with assault after allegedly waterboarding his four-year-old daughter, police in the state of Washington have said.

Reading further, I learned that the Police, had cited Sgt Joshua Tabor, a helicopter repairer who served in Iraq from 2007-08, had

…dunked the girl’s head in a sink full of water for not reciting the alphabet. Yelm police chief Todd Stancil said Sgt Tabor was arrested on 31 January. “From what I understand it is very similar to waterboarding,” Mr Stancil said of the alleged offence, according to the AFP news agency.

From what I understand of waterboarding, the analogy is rather stretched.

Water-boarding involves a prisoner being stretched on his back or hung upside down, having a cloth pushed into his mouth and/or plastic film placed over his face and having water poured onto his face. He gags almost immediately.

The Telegraph headline shouted US soldier gives four-year-old daughter ‘waterboarding’ over alphabet. The tell-tale inverted commas around the term waterboarding hints at an awareness that the story is not entirely free from metaphor.

I am not belittling the abuse that a child appears to have had inflicted on her. There may be a connection between Joshua Tabor’s actions, and experiences he had serving in Iraq, where the stories of waterboarding emerged. But there is also in this sad case some implications for leadership studies. Is it easier for waterboarding to become culturally acceptable under extreme conditions of military threat if there is a connection with more widely-expressed and primitive behaviours of bullying and abuse? Are leaders able to exploit these conditions, as in the well-known Milgram experiments?

Leaders we deserve?

I was struck recently by the popularity of the view expressed recently that Tony Blair and George Bush were criminals who should be arrested for their war crimes, including incidents of water-boarding over whose perpetrators they had ultimate responsibility. The argument has enough elasticity to blame the political leaders for the panic and abuse of one little girl in a town in Washington DC, years after the war ended.

When we put leaders on trial who are accused of responsibility for acts of mass murder and torture, are we also holding to them to account for monstrous acts, and for forcing others to comply with their wishes? Did they struggle with one of the ultimate dilemmas of leadership involving the rights of one set of individuals against the safety of another set? Are we also demonstrating the complicated collusion which plays out between the leaders we elect and the leaders we deserve?

One Response to Waterboarding and Leadership

  1. Milton says:

    I guess we can ask, did the military let this “mental deficient” into their ranks or did they make this normal guy in this “mental deficient”. Even Ronald Reagan said that water boarding was torture, but I guess Cheney and his gay daughter are the brain trust on this lie that has been perpetuated onto the American people and signed off by the GOP.

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