Friday, May 01, 2009

Torture revisited

It's worth taking another look at why torture is a bad idea as a matter of public policy even if you think it's a good idea in certain circumstances.

Some of this comes from watching the complete conversation between Jon Stewart and Cliff May, which can -- and should -- be seen here. May argues, in part, that the so-called torture memos are actually good because they show the limits America placed on enhanced interrogations. That's why releasing them was bad -- because terrorists now know what the limits are.

And why is that bad? Because the reason torture is so powerful is that the victim never knows when it will stop. He is powerless. If you know, for example, that there are limits on waterboarding -- only 182 to go! -- then you have a certain amount of control over the situation. If you are deprived of sleep for 11 days, but know you can sleep in on the 12th, then it's less like torture and more like finals week in college.

So the idea is that we don't torture, but only the president gets to define torture, and only the president gets to know what that definition is. If the definition gets out, as is likely in a free and open society, then torture doesn't work so well. You really have to choose: freedom or torture? Take a moment to think it over before you decide.

Another reason why setting specific limits on interrogations isn't helpful is that not everybody reacts to torture in the same way. So what might cause intense suffering in one victim might be quite tolerable for another. May, for instance, presented as laughable the notion that loud music might be considered a form of torture. But I read somewhere recently (I forget where) that a victim said that loud noise was actually one of the worst parts of the ordeal.

It makes sense to me. You are all alone with nothing do, and you have music blaring that guarantees you can't sleep, you can't hear and you can't talk. Pretty soon, I imagine, you can't even think, and madness can't be too far past that. Sounds like torture to me.

May's justification for one-size-fits-all torture tactics seemed to rest in part on the Geneva Conventions standard that torture is what shocks the conscience. What shocks the conscience more, he asked, a waterboarded terrorist or 3,000 dead in the World Trade Center?

The problem with heading down that road is that there really is no place to stop. What shocks the conscience more, pulled-out fingernails or 3,000 dead? A severed limb or 3,000 dead? An innocent child murdered to get her father to talk or 3,000 dead?

It is not a slippery slope. It is a plunge into the abyss.


Anonymous said...

From the choir,

Kirk Dooley said...

The United States of America, from its very founding, has set very high standards for itself. By condoning these methods, we have lowered ourselves into the same gutter that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and other despots (the Generals that used to run Chile and Argentina, for example) have been in for most of the last 100 years. Despite what the Republicans have always been saying, the ends do not justify the means.

9/11 could have been prevented if the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon had been doing their jobs instead of covering their behinds. And despite efforts to get agencies to work together (i.e., the Department of Homeland Insecurity) turf is still more important than the safety of this country. And nothing going on at Gitmo can change that -- only a few swift kicks in the right asses, administered by the Commander-in-Chief (no matter which party he belongs to).