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It was perhaps only a matter of time before waterboarding, the controversial interrogation technique that many have called torture, became the subject of art and satire, and now a kind of seedy Coney Island carnie attraction. NPR's Margot Adler went out to Brooklyn to see what the waterboard thrill ride is all about.
Mr. SCOTT BAKER (Sideshow Barker, Coney Island): It don't gitmo better than this. Yes, indeed. It's politically incorrect, it's shocking, it's depraved, it's disgusting. You're going to have the time of your life.
MARGOT ADLER: Scott Baker stands on the street trying to draw people into the Coney Island sideshow. Just next to the entrance is a new attraction inspired by the U.S. war on terror. First, you look at the wall where there's a picture of someone who looks a lot like Spongebob Squarepants tied down, and the same phrase you just heard Baker say, "It don't Gitmo better," painted above the picture. Cinderblock steps lead to a small window with prison bars where you can peer into a cell.
After depositing a dollar in a slot, two robotic figures come to life for a mere 15 seconds. There's an interrogator in a black jumpsuit with a kettle of water, and a man, clearly a prisoner, in an orange jumpsuit tied down. Waterboarding, which the government has acknowledged using on some key terrorist suspects, is a technique that simulates drowning. And the orange-suited robot writhes and convulses as water is poured into his mouth. Tami and Joe Brady step up and put their dollar in the slot.
Ms. TAMI BRADY (Visitor, Coney Island): The man's going up and down, and there's water coming out of this metal thing.
Ms. JOE BRADY (Visitor, Coney Island): He's strapped down. He's strapped down. Oh, my goodness. He's poured water all over his face.
Ms. BRADY: It's like a water torture.
ADLER: Steve Powers, the artist and former carnie who created this act with help from Creative Time, the nonprofit arts organization, says when he was offered this space...
Mr. STEVE POWERS (Artist; Creator, Waterboard Thrill Ride): My first impression of it was, hey, let's make it a torture chamber. It had a sink in the corner that hadn't been used in 30 years. It actually had like a prison scene painted on one wall. You know, Coney Island's been a fun house mirror reflecting and refracting the best and worst of America for a hundred years now. With that guiding ethos in mind, we came up with the Waterboard Thrill Ride.
ADLER: As you might expect, it's getting all kinds of reaction. A few were disappointed and thought it would be more satirical, but Mark Kehoe, an artist and the former art director of the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, says it reminds him of an act he once saw that mimicked Nazi atrocities.
Mr. MARK KEHOE (Artist): I actually really like how it's put together. I like how you put a dollar bill in that thing. But we're looking at our atrocities, which is a little bit more interesting.
Mr. POWERS: My favorite response probably is the Navy veteran...
ADLER: Artist Steve Powers.
Mr. POWERS: That is pro-waterboarding. He just totally loves the booth. He thinks it's a great addition to the Coney Island pantheon of distractions. And at the same time he's, you know, he's a dedicated military man.
ADLER: Although Powers says he began this project because he thought waterboarding was something that needed to be explored.
Mr. POWERS: I think I'm more confused by it now than I've ever been.
ADLER: Why so?
Mr. POWERS: Because no matter what I do in pursuit of understanding waterboarding, without being an enemy combatant or without being somebody who's interrogating an enemy combatant, there's really no way to really understand it. It's kind of understanding, like, you know, gallbladder surgery without going through it. It's trying to capture a scene in a place in space and time that I'll never visit.
ADLER: But wanting to get as close to the real thing as he could, last night he got together a team of lawyers to join him in a waterboarding experience. He invited about 30 people to join him in a small room a block or so from his art attraction. Mike Ritz, a former Army interrogator who now trains people who want to understand interrogation, was dressed in black. While some U.S. officials believe waterboarding is effective in obtaining information and is not torture, Ritz believes waterboarding is torture and is not an effective technique. And he emphasizes that the military doesn't use it. As to why he would participate in this event, Ritz said waterboarding...
Mr. MIKE RITZ (Former Army interrogator): It's become very easy for society to look the other way. I think to continue to get people talking, to show them, as long as it's not a mockery, and that always concerns me, this concerns me, that it could become a mockery or seem like a mockery.
ADLER: Suddenly, we were beyond humor and satire. Powers and the attorneys one by one were brought in, their heads covered. Ritz put a black rag into their mouth.
(Soundbite of yelling)
ADLER: And started pouring water until they gagged or resisted. Neil Goldman, a retired attorney, said he was glad to get out of there.
Mr. NEIL GOLDMAN (Waterboard Simulation Subject; Retired Attorney): It was frightening. But the most frightening thing was him shoving that cloth in my mouth. That was frightening.
ADLER: Steve Powers said he learned a little more about waterboarding.
Mr. POWERS: We had a very careful, controlled, as safe as humanly possible experience, and it was still terrible.
ADLER: Powers, who believes humor is a powerful tool to deal with horror, says what's more obscene, saying waterboarding isn't torture or creating a waterboard thrill ride? Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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