Frank Foley,a Lecturer in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, explains some things about torture for the BBC.
As they came to terms with the shock of 9/11, people at the highest levels of the US government wanted to mete out a ferocious response to al-Qaeda suspects.
But let it not be said that they wanted to torture – of course not. We’re the good guys, so we don’t torture. We do something else, that’s unpleasant, but it’s not what fits under the word “torture.” Hell no.
“Everyone was focused on trying to avoid torture, staying within the line, while doing everything possible to save American lives,” Bush administration lawyer Timothy Flanigan has been quoted as saying.
What happened was that “the line” bent.
To rise to the level of torture, one legal memo argued, the interrogator would need to intend to cause suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”.
If the organs don’t fail – hey presto, it’s not torture.
The Americans were about to learn a lesson that the British had already learned decades earlier in the Northern Ireland conflict.
In the second half of the 20th Century, Britain’s security forces developed what they called the “five techniques”: hooding, white noise, a diet of bread and water, sleep deprivation, and being forced to stand in a stress position against a wall for long periods.
We now know that British agents trained officers of Brazil’s military dictatorship in these techniques.
And then word got out, and people elsewhere didn’t think British security forces were the good guys, and it was all terribly wounding to the feelings.
Regardless of the label, the brutality of these techniques was widely condemned when details were revealed. The UK’s international reputation was tarnished and it lost a good deal of moral authority in its fight against terrorism.
Because, sadly, reputations don’t depend just on one’s own firm conviction that one is not a torturer.