Defining Torture


Paul Waldman has an important article at The American Prospect addressing the defenders of torture and their, yes, tortured reasoning in defending American actions in the war on terror. He asks a question that defenders of torture cannot answer without contradicting themselves:

Here’s the question I’ve never heard someone like Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn’t include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That’s not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he’d prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That’s the purpose of waterboarding, that’s the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that’s the purpose of stress positions. The “enhanced” techniques that were used weren’t meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.

So to repeat: If what the Bush administration did wasn’t torture, how would its apologists define the term?

And here’s another question they can’t answer honestly or coherently: If one of our enemies waterboarded American citizens, would you consider it torture then? The answer to that is obvious, because it’s not a hypothetical. We have charged citizens of other countries with war crimes, including the Japanese after WW2, for waterboarding American soldiers.

Comments

  1. says

    Because here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession.

    Or for fun. To relieve boredom, or achieve some pleasure for the torturer that he/she otherwise wouldn’t get. For the sheer hell of it.

    Our definition of torture needs to include such motivations to incorporate the sadism and rape evidenced at, for example, Abu Ghraib.

  2. says

    @Gretchen #1 – I suspect that Waldman is talking about sanctioned torture, and the way that the US government has been twisting itself into logic pretzles arguing that “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not, in fact, torture.

  3. D. C. Sessions says

    And here’s another question they can’t answer honestly or coherently: If one of our enemies waterboarded American citizens, would you consider it torture then? The answer to that is obvious, because it’s not a hypothetical. We have charged citizens of other countries with war crimes, including the Japanese after WW2, for waterboarding American soldiers.

    American exceptionalism!

    As for defining torture, it’s easy to meet the challenge: just define it in a way that recognizes that there are different rules for Americans, both as perpetrators and as victims.

  4. =8)-DX says

    @Gregory #2.

    War on Terror

    Isn’t the reason for using this term meant to be specifically the different nature of current conflicts? The idea that it’s not countries fighting each other, but an attempt to stop the spread of fundamentalist violence targetting civilians with guerilla and terrorist tactics?

    I mean it’s wrought with all sorts of baggage, misrepresentations (i.e. defining “terrorist”), etc. But the US and West’s efforts in Afghanistan and against Al Quaida in general are surely a different kind of war than before (and definitely not a “cold” war either) and definitely nothing to do with what the Inquisition was doing.

  5. Michael Heath says

    Paul Waldman writes:

    . . . here’s the definition of torture you’d think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession.

    Well no, the Bush Administration defined torture as inflictions which caused long-term damage. They had medical personnel present to limit the torture they employed. They used this parameter to justify the way they water-boarded detainees and the length of time detainees were kept in stress positions and without sleep.

    I strongly disagree with the Bush Administration’s definition; but we shouldn’t deny their definition exists if we’re going to convincingly destroy it.

  6. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    We have charged citizens of other countries with war crimes, including the Japanese after WW2, for waterboarding American soldiers.

    Not just “charged”. Executed.

  7. bradleybetts says

    @Gretchen #1

    I agree the definition seems to be specific to torture as used in a military or espionage sense. Perhaps “The intentional infliction of physical or mental pain or severe discomfort over a sustained period” might be better? That’s certainly what I see as torture.

  8. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession

    Tortyre is the infliction of extreme suffering.
    Motives or purposes- ostensible or not- don’t matter.

  9. wscott says

    @ Gretchen: Actually, the atrocities at Abu Ghirab were done specifically to “soften up” the prisoners for later interrogation sessions. They weren’t done just “for the hell of it.” Which doesn’t excuse it, of course.

    @ Michael Heath: Exactly. The Bush Administration’s definition is total BS, but ignoring it doesn’t refute it.

  10. khms says

    Tortyre is the infliction of extreme suffering.
    Motives or purposes- ostensible or not- don’t matter.

    True, but intention needs to be present, I’d say. It doesn’t count as (the crime of) torture if the suffering isn’t intentional.

    Another problem is where to delimit it from legitimate sanctions, such as incarceration or even a fine, insofar as those are certainly also meant to cause suffering, “just” less of it – I suspect the answer is dependent on culture, which is not a particularly good answer :-( See also (in the US) “cruel and unusual”, a moving standard.

  11. sillose says

    definition of torture: anything done while not being an american for the purpose of inflicting suffering on another.

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