For my part, I have no trouble whatsoever with techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, disorientation, extreme temperature change, etc—primarily because I don’t think promoting discomfort or fear constitute “torture.” But then this is precisely the point: when the definition of torture hinges on abstractions like “anguish” and “distress,” and on qualifications to those abstractions like “severe,” then the problem of defining torture effectively—and distinguishing it from other
techniques of active interrogation—becomes context and ethos-specific.
Cathy states her claim clearly: she is opposed to interrogation techniques that cause physical suffering. But as I’ve argued before, “suffering” is going to prove specific to the individual undergoing the interrogation, and if that is the benchmark for torture, then just about anything can come to count as torture, given the proper circumstances, and depending on the prevailing cultural attitudes …
It seems to me that Jeff and some of his commenters are blurring the line between “physical discomfort” and “physical suffering” (the term I used). The use of the term “discomfort” to refer to such techniques as immersion in freezing water, exposure to extreme heat or extreme cold, or even being keept in stress positions for prolonged periods of time — let alone inducing a sensation of drowning (waterboarding).
One of Jeff’s commenters, Chris, may be on to something when he says that the definition of torutre is a bit like “the old, ‘I can’t tell you what obscenity is, but I know it when I see it’ kinda thing.” Chris himself defines torture as “the attempt to extract information through the direct infliction of physical pain to break down barriers of resistance.”
But here’s a question: is there a clear line between “pain” and “discomfort”? I have memories of several occasions when a doctor or nurse told me just before a medical test, “You’re not really going to feel any pain, just some discomfort,” and a few moments later I found myself mentally assessing the accuracy of that statement in language that I generally prefer to avoid using on my blog.
Several of Jeff’s commenters suggest this standard, with which I understand Jeff agrees as well:
Any form of physical or mental stress or abuse we routinely use on our own people going through boot camp, SEAL BUDS training, pilot S/E/R/E training, etc. shall be heretofore known as “not torture.”
First of all: do we know that these techniques (i.e. immersion in cold water) are used on prisoners in degrees no more extreme than they are used on our own trainees?
Second: if we use these techniques on our own trainees with the specific purpose of training them to withstand torture, does that mean it’s not torture if we do it to prisoners?
Third: If the standard is “anything to which some people in our society are subjected with their consent is not torture,” then why draw the line at military training? Not to be crude, but tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans every year are subjected to a medical procedure that involves having a plastic tube inserted in their rectum. Would that be an acceptable thing to do to a prisoner?
Another poster writes:
I believe that the treshold of torture would be the threat or follow-thru of PERMENANT (sic) PHYSICAL HARM or the threat or follow-thru of DEATH. Any use of electricity is off the table.
Well, waterboarding does, in my opinion, involve the threat of death. Furthermore, “permanent physical harm” as a standard leaves room for a lot of things that would be considered torture even by most advocates of “coercive interrogation.” If you apply a piece of red-hot metal to someone’s skin, the burn will heal — no permanent physical harm done. If you beat a man on the testicles with a rubber hose, no permanent physical harm there either. I’m sure one could think of many other examples.
A few more points:
As I said in my first post on the topic, legitimizing torture “creates the very real danger that at least some of the torturers will enjoy it, particularly if they have been primed to see the one being tortured as an evil person getting his just deserts.” It seems to me that at least a couple of Jeff’s posters clearly enjoy the prospect of terrorists being made to suffer. Call it “moral preening” or whatever you like, but I believe that this is a sentiment we simply can’t condone. What are the chances that a U.S. soldier or special agent authorized to engage in “coercive interrogation” will take pleasure in the prisoner’s suffering, and perhaps amp the “coercion” up a little beyond what is (supposedly) needed to extract the information? And when does this degrade us to a level most of us would find unacceptable?
Also: let’s not forget that not all the prisoners are “terrorists.” We could be inflicting this “discomfort” on an innocent person.
And finally, one of Jeff’s posters asks:
Why take prisoners? If they cannot be squeezed for information they are not worth the effort to keep them. Just humanely shoot them at the front and save all the trouble.
I think it’s a misconception that information can be extracted from prisoners only through interrogation techniques that include the infliction of physical suffering. Psychological manipulation can be quite effective in this regard.