The Corner

Clarifying Torture

From a reader:

I’d suggest a pretty good rule of thumb for determining whether or not a specific act should be categorized as “torture” might be to pose this question: Will complete and detailed information about this technique strengthen or weaken the resistance of the detainee? If knowing details about it will strengthen resistance, then it’s not really all that terrifying, is it?

I thought this was an interesting test to apply. I haven’t thought it all through, but it does seem compelling at first blush, at least as a way to distinguish between physical and mental torture. If you explain to me what an iron maiden or thumb screw or hot poker will do to me, I will be just as terrified, even more so. If you explain to me that I won’t drown from waterboarding or that the wall I’m being slammed into is designed to prevent injury, I still will dislike the experience a great deal, but I will be dramatically less terrified.

Update: From a reader:

Jonah,

I’m guessing your writer was never waterboarded. Don’t you think the guys that were waterboarded dozens of times figured out they weren’t going to drown? By your writer’s logic, waterboarding would stop being effective after about 5 or 6 uses. Waterboarding takes advantage of animal instincts against drowning, not the rational potion of our brains. So do lots of other forms of torture. You can’t really turn off the animal part of the brain. The Chinese water torture doesn’t sound so bad, but apparently drives a man crazy. If knowing the details of it make it easier to resist, why do we eve have SERE? We could tell our soldiers, “When they do this, don’t worry, you won’t drown.” There have been quite a few media members that have undergone this, knowing it won’t kill them and they were still terrified.

Saying, “Oh that doesn’t sound so bad,” when our own tribunals have convicted our own and foreign soldiers for it, just makes it sould like trying to justify torture because our side did it.

I think this is a perfectly valid point. As I said, I think it’s an interesting test to apply. I don’t think it’s dispositive.

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