Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What is Torture?

The definition of torture is in the news these days. The United Nations has a fairly loose definition that includes this key phrase: “…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted…” Mental pain could easily include a wide universe of emotional and psychological effects. Personally, I imagine that being sent to a maximum-security prison, where I would be very much in fear of being beaten, raped or killed by fellow inmates, would be a kind of “severe” mental pain. Can we safely say that inflicting such fear in a person is humane while other forms of mental pain, such as sleep deprivation, are not? Is mental pain acceptable if it is less extreme but spread over a longer period of time? In my profession I have had occasion to receive many accidental electrical shocks. The pain is quite severe but very short in duration. I much prefer this kind of momentary pain to the extended emotional pain experienced during family strife or in anticipation of a government audit.

When I was young and first exposed to stories of medieval torture techniques, I saw the deliberate mutilation of the victim’s body as being the unconscionable core element of torture. The infamous Thumbscrews, Rack and Iron Maiden seemed horrific beyond my curiosity to even imagine the suffering. But it is not the initial pain alone that makes me shudder; it is the lasting agony of damaged flesh and bones should one be allowed to live on. This is definitely torture.

Watching the controversy unfold over interrogation techniques used on terrorists in an attempt to save more lives from being lost in the future attacks likely to come, I have attempted to arrive at my own definition of torture. For now I am satisfied with the notion that inflicting lasting physical damage to a person’s body for the purposes of coercion or punishment is torture. Making a person fear for their life does not seem to qualify. If it did we would not be able to incarcerate criminals into the general prison population. Inflicting mental anguish, in most cases that I can imagine, would not qualify for the same reason. If the treatment went on to the extent of causing a person to be permanently mentally debilitated, then I would say the line has been crossed. I have recently learned that we have waterboarded thousands of our own agents and soldiers as part of their training! It sounds extremely unpleasant but in such extreme situations as we have found ourselves in following the 9/11 attacks, I wouldn’t call it unconscionable or torture. Now, if it’s driving sticks under the fingernails, then yes.

When news broke of prisoners being taken to our base on Cuba, my immediate thought was that this was a big mistake. These kinds of ideological warriors cannot be rehabilitated and released to their homes. I thought it would have been much better if they had died in a firefight -- that we should have made sure that they did. Now I am aware of the vitally important information we were able to obtain from some of these prisoners. Getting this information has likely saved many lives but I can’t help but believe there was a better way to handle the whole situation as the resulting quagmire is far from being resolved.

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