As a journalist for Current TV, a former military officer, and a student of public policy I have been involved in the debate about the War on Terror from the frontlines in Afghanistan to the policy discussions of academia. In the spring of 2006 a battle was brewing between the Bush Administration and some influential members of Congress over the use coercive interrogation techniques. The conflict over what techniques were legally and morally permissible had been a subtext of the War on Terror for years, but for the most part the debate was occurring inside of the intelligence community, the human rights community, and in small legal circles. It was outside the purview of the American public.
By April of 2006 the debate about coercive interrogation and its most controversial technique, water-boarding, had started to spill into the headlines. I was in graduate school at the time. As I watched the debate unfold, and listened to both pundits and policymakers give their opinion on whether this technique constituted torture, I was struck by the strangeness of the debate. All of these people were lobbying opinions about a subject they had never seen or witnessed, and that struck me as problematic in a healthy democracy. See, in full disclosure I had a unique knowledge of water-boarding. I had the technique performed on me during my time in the service as part of my SERE training (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape). I, like all Special Forces operatives who deploy overseas, was sent to a training camp where we learned to resist interrogation and survive captivity, god forbid that ever happened to us overseas. Ironically, one of the many techniques we learned during this training was to assert our rights as told under Article III of the Geneva Convention. So, because I was familiar with water-boarding, I was intrigued by this national conversation that was going on about this thing that few people really understood. But, like many Americans, the pre-occupations of everyday life, for me the pressure of mid-terms and exams, pushed the controversy to the back of my mind.
Then, in mid March I traveled to Cambodia for Spring Break. While there I visited the Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21) prison in Phnom Penh. The Tuol Sleng prison had been converted to a museum and memorial for the victims of the Cambodian Genocide under the Pol Pot regime. As I walked through the museum and saw the photographs of the victims of the genocide, I was shocked to see a picture of the Khmer Rouge Water-boarding a Cambodian villager. At that moment I saw a throughline between the debate we were having domestically and the picture I was standing in front of. I was spurred into action, and upon my return to the United States, I decided to have myself water-boarded, this time on national TV, as a public service, so that this controversial technique could be judged in the court of public opinion.
Kaj Larsen's water-boarding video airs Wednesday at 7pm PST/10PM EST in a one hour special report on Current TV.