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November 01, 2006

Defining Torture Downward

Bravo Romeo Delta

The ongoing debate on torture has been often been characterized by an intensity of passion entirely appropriate to such an ethically precarious subject. In the midst of this discussion, there have been a few, arguably well-intentioned, rhetorical over-extensions that are worth exploring in some more detail. In particular, the question of whether or not any given kind of torture is morally or ethically equivalent to any other given form of torture.

To make one thing clear right here, right this instant – this is not a post about the legalities of torture. This is not about “what would really happen in the field.” It’s not about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Guantanamo, Vietnam or Nazis or whatever. This is not about what other nations think of us and whether or not we give a damn.

This is about right and wrong, and how we tell the difference. How do we think about torture, and how to think through the underlying principles that inform that debate?

For those with an interest in digging down into the substrate, there are some excellent resources on the question, including the archive at George Washington University, as well as this Entire Friggin’ Blog (when I compare this post to that blog, it’s like comparing a candle to the sun, or an anorexic to Michael Moore). I had originally intended to dig back into the original Yoo memo and find the six coercive interrogation techniques under debate. I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, but can refer you to none other than... me! In this post at Protein Wisdom, I debated about a number of things in terms of the call for Rumsfeld to resign, not least of which is torture, where I cited six techniques, and like a good scholar didn’t link to the original source (which I can’t seem to find right now):

  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
  2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
  5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.
  6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

In any case, there is some merit in arguing that all torture is ethically equivalent – after all, we generally regard all violent rape of infants to be equivalently abhorrent, regardless of the heinousness of any specific act of rape. Extending this to torture would imply that, saying “Well, it was just waterboarding” shouldn’t get you some sort of pass simply because you weren’t saying “And then we beheaded the Jew.”

Another other premise that seems to occasionally animate debate on torture is the marked unwillingness to say that one given harsh technique, while distasteful, is not torture, while another technique is torture.

The combination of these two points of view yields a difficult situation. Let’s, for sake of argument, rank coercive interrogation methods on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being shaking a finger at someone in a reproachful fashion, while 10 is a Hanoi Hilton beating. Now, let’s say that, on this scale, waterboarding rates a 7 on this scale. We can reasonably argue that an item rated 10 is essentially as evil or spiritually corrosive as an item ranked 7. This would imply then, reasonably, that a method ranked at 6, not being that much worse than 7, should also be considered torture. We apply this logic recursively, all the way down the slippery slope, and find that (eventually) speaking to an inmate in any way that causes them to reveal information is morally equivalent to some twisted, nightmarish vision out of Mengele’s dreams.

This is a classical slippery slope argument, but if we maintain no method of discerning that a given approach is or is not torture, then we end up either making graphic and horrific torture perfectly acceptable, or that anything, including the detention of terrorists is torture.

So, one of the two premises must be suspect: either all torture is morally equivalent, or we must have a workable means of separating the distasteful from torture.

Consider: Would Daniel Pearle rather have had someone grab the front of his shirt and forcefully grabs the front of his shirt and shake him, or would he have preferred to be beheaded?

So, provisionally, I don’t think we can consider all torture to be ethically equivalent – in other words, some forms of torture are worse than others.

Thus, the strict rules based ethical methodology doesn’t seem to be strongly applicable (at least in the fairly circumspect solution space around the cusp at which the distasteful edges over into anathema). There are, generally speaking, two other methodologies than can be applied to this sort of ethical question – a utilitarian school, and a “Golden Rule” approach.

First, the “Golden Rule” approach – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – I think I can, for the most part live with the six techniques I point out above. That’s kind of a personal call, but I don’t imagine that if any one of those techniques had been applied to a US soldier, that the phrase “torture” would have been the first to spring to mind.

Secondly, we have the question of whether or not the good outweighs the benefit. I think we can imagine a calculus in which we might do something distasteful, but short of torture, given a sufficiently robust threat. In this case, I think we run into danger for a number of reasons. First among them is that we apply a method based on a supposition of what the guy knows, which may or may not be a correct estimation. Thus, we might start cutting off digits, and then magically find that the guy is really is just some dude wearing a bear suit and hanging around the Pentagon for no good reason.

I think it is pretty clear that this is a bad outcome and is ethically untenable (although one can argue about the practical elements), and can’t be quickly just swept under the rug with the “collateral damage” broom.

So, going back to the six reference techniques outlined above, it becomes interesting to note that the waterboarding is universally successful.

I can’t vouch in a meaningful way for whether or not it is a “severe” mental or physical stress. And regardless of whether or not I’ve been subjected to it, I don’t feel that I can speak to the broader “reasonable man” as to whether or not it is severe. One can certainly argue that anything that never fails to elicit cooperation is, by definition, stressful.

However, taken a different way, would the person – let’s say, 2 hours later – be substantially different, physically or mentally, other than having a marked aversion to being waterboarded again. If not, was the experience sufficiently severe to have been torture?

Put another way, when looking at the entire universe of techniques which will inevitably never fail to produce an answer, are any of those methods not torture?

Can we think – even with a science fiction magic black box that can produce anything of which we can conceive - of a gadget or process that would generate sufficient distress, discomfort, agitation, confusion, sympathy, anger, or whatever that it would always, in the end, produce a truthful confession? Are any of the magical methods we can conceive of axiomatically not torture?

I’ve been stuck here for a bit – there are a lot of different ways to go with this, but something did strike me – is that when were looking at the question of how to define what is and isn’t torture, one of the operative questions is whether or not the definition of torture is a functionally usable definition. In other words, we simply can’t say that “being icky” is a sufficiently rigorous definition, we have to have something that’s at least amenable to a litmus test. And the concept of something that is so fiendishly stressful that it will never fail to get someone to talk is certainly appealing in the stark logical clarity it would lend to such a definition.

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at November 1, 2006 01:39 AM | Missile Tracks

Retaliatiory Launches

Well done, and it's good to see you in print again.

Posted by: Patton at November 1, 2006 05:36 AM

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