Is Getting Waterboarded Really Like Drowning?

Many people are aware of the basic nature of waterboarding torture, but most are oblivious when it comes to what happens when someone is actually subjected to it. In reality, it is one of the worst torture methods still implemented today. Even though it's not intended to be fatal, waterboarding makes you feel like you are literally drowning.

So, what is waterboarding exactly, and what makes it so terrible? When you take a look at what it does to your body, it's easy to see why it is so reviled. This malicious torture method has a long and horrifying history. For those wondering where waterboarding originated, it actually comes from a time when many torture methods were perfected: the Spanish Inquisition

It's hard to truly understand how traumatic this form of torture is without experiencing it first-hand. Many may think it sounds like a light form of abuse, but keep in mind that few last more than a minute or two without breaking. Oh, and if it goes wrong, you can die.

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  • What Is Waterboarding?

    In its most basic form, waterboarding starts with a person strapped to a board, with their feet positioned at a higher point than their head. Then, water is poured over their face until their sinus cavities and mouth fill with water. They cannot breathe the water out, but because they are positioned with their body higher than their head, they will never actually drown. Most of the time, a cloth is put over the face as water is poured. The result is a simulated experience that some even say is a form of temporary drowning, from which a person is revived over and over again.

    The whole ordeal only tends to last a few seconds to a few minutes, but that can feel like an eternity to those who suffer through it. 

  •  The Gag Reflex Is Activated Automatically

    As the water enters a person's nose, throat, and lungs, their body will decide that it's time to get all that potentially deadly stuff out. It's the same reflex that happens when they're drowning, as their body tries to move water out of their lungs so they can breathe normally. Unfortunately, in this case, the gag reflex works against them.

    In trying to force water out of a person's sinuses and lungs, their body also forces out air, but the cloth keeps the water from getting out. So, the gag reflex will be activated repeatedly, making the person feel as though they are choking on water every time they breathe in. Even if the torturer is between pouring bouts, the person being waterboarded will still breathe in enough water to force their gag reflex to respond, unless they actively work to suppress it. A person can only keep that up for so long.  

  • Water Goes Into The Nose And Mouth

    The general idea of waterboarding is that the person being tortured is breathing in water in small, gradual amounts. The covering that is placed over their face forces them to breathe in water, including water that is absorbed by the covering. The danger here is that they will not be able to breathe it out. So, when water is poured over their face, every breath fills their lungs and sinuses with fluid.

    People who have experienced it first-hand tell of the sensation of water running up their nose, even as they try not to breathe it in. They say they cannot cough or get any of it out of their system, no matter how they try. And even if they wait until the water stops pouring, the water inhaled from the soaked cloth is enough to send the body into a panic.

    The people being tortured can't tell if they're breathing out or breathing in.

  • The Experience Can Induce Vomiting

    When someone is being tortured, their captors generally don't want them to die, so they need to keep the person conscious. They can often pass out if too much water is poured over them, so captors will often keep the person they're torturing alert by allowing them to throw up.

    When the person is propped up, their gag reflex will empty out their lungs, sinuses, and stomach (which are all full of water). Victims of waterboarding torture report being sat up to vomit the water out over and over again, before being resubmitted to the torture afterward. Some people went through it over 100 times

    In 1947, one man who experienced waterboarding recalled the way he was held up to vomit, or even submitted to pressure across his stomach, so the torture could continue:

    I found my consciousness came back again and found Yuki was sitting on my stomach. And then I vomited the water from my stomach, and the consciousness came back again for me... From my mouth and all openings of my face ... and then Yuki would repeat the same treatment and the same procedure to me until I became unconscious again.

  • The Brain Signals To The Body That It's Dying

    With the lungs and sinus cavities filling with water and the gag reflex triggered, a person's brain can get muddled. Here is, perhaps, the most horrifying part of waterboarding. When all these feelings are combined, the brain begins to believe that the body is dying by drowning. It is a sudden, forceful, and terrifying response. It's a sensation that they're about to die, right here, right now, and they have no control over it. It really has nothing to do with how brave a person is. They will feel their fight or flight instinct kick in, but they will have no way to do either one. They will, instead, be trapped. This feeling will last until their captors decide to stop.

    As one person who experienced waterboarding described it:

    I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You know you are dead and it's too late. Involuntary and total panic. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye. At the time my lungs emptied and I began to draw water, I would have sold my children to escape. There was no choice, or chance, and willpower was not involved.

  • If It's Not Performed Properly, It Can Turn Deadly

    The intent of waterboarding is to keep the victim alive until they say what their torturers are trying to get them to say, or to subject them to repeated rounds of the method. That being said, it doesn't always work that way. There are ways the torture can go wrong, and in those cases, the victim can be harmed, or even killed.

    When the torture is performed, the water is poured intermittently, so as to make sure the victim does not fully asphyxiate. However, if water is poured for too long a period, or continuously, the victim can drown. Even if they don't die from this, it can damage their lungs or brain due to lack of oxygen, sometimes permanently.

    People can also die from cardiac arrest. The sense of panic and fear is so great that a victim may break bones from struggling to get free, and the terror may be enough to give them a heart attack.