November 1, 2007
Splitting hairs over the definition of torture
Last night’s Worst Person in the World on Countdown (full transcript of the episode here; Worst Person is about three-quarters of the way down the page) was Morton Kondracke of Fox News, for stating that waterboarding may well feel like torture, but it isn’t torture because it doesn’t do any lasting damage (exact phrasing and full context over at Media Matters). Keith Olbermann did a great job of eviscerating Kondracke over those comments, given that if done properly, waterboarding does in fact cause lasting psychological damage, and if done improperly it could kill a person. However, Kondracke’s comment brought to my mind a very basic question: if something feels like torture, and obviously I don’t mean metaphorically — “Two more hours until school gets out? That’s torture!” — if a detainee or prisoner of war or what have you is experiencing sensations that are akin to those he would experience while being tortured, then doesn’t that make what he is experiencing de facto torture?
It seems like pundits are spending a lot of time splitting hairs over what is and what isn’t torture, ultimately drawing the conclusion that if it’s something we do, then it’s not torture, because torture is illegal, and we don’t torture. It seems to me that maybe we should spend a little less time rationalizing our harsher interrogation techniques, and a little more time examining whether a) they bear any resemblence whatsoever to torture — just as defining sexual abstinence as “doing absolutely everything possible except PIV sex” makes the term abstinence rather useless (which is not to say I find it terribly useful to begin with, but I’ve known far too many adolescents and young adults who do everything but, and of course they do everything but without protection), saying “we don’t torture” and then dancing around the definition of torture makes the statement that we don’t torture rather meaningless — and b) they’re even remotely effective anyway — since, as many others have pointed out, people will often say whatever they think their captors want to hear when they’re under extreme physical and/or psychological duress.
Seems pretty straightforward to me. But what do I know — I’m just a civilian.