Is Waterboarding Torture?

Not according to our president and several Volokh Conspiracy regulars.

My take is:

The Bush administration has been playing definition games with the word torture. “We don’t torture!” they proclaim vociferously, while pointing to a hastily assembled legal definition that narrowly defines torture a something that causes major organ failure or death.

Several of the comments above embrace this willfully obtuse definition. Waterboarding, they argue, only causes temporary discomfort.

Bah.

By this definition, Saddam’s rape rooms were not torture for the women raped – they were only temporarily discomforted. They were not torture for the interrogated – they only had to watch their daughters be raped and were not physically touched at all.

One of the big moral problems of torture is the direct infliction of pain; it is the way you psychologically damage the tortured person. I teach in an immigrant-rich community. I had a young man from the Sudan who freaked out when I patted him on the back for a correct answer. He was literally incapable of seeing any physical contact as being positive because he was tortured by a militia in his homeland. I never enquired about the type of torture. It might have been physical pain or it might have been induced feelings of powerlessness while seeing his family abused, or maybe he was – wait for it – waterboarded. I didn’t ask for clarification from his family because it just didn’t matter. We just had to find a way to help this young man integrate back into society and feel safe, even if he didn’t suffer “major organ failure.”

Semantic games are fun. Arguing about definitions can be a jolly good time. But I hold that excusing the excesses of this administration is harmful to our nation.

Let me ‘splain.

But first, lest I be excused of being a islamofascistophile (is that a word? To heck with it. I’m German. I can glom words together), let me state clearly and unequivocally that I have no sympathy for the terrorists and believe that they do not have valid moral claims that would check our actions. Having set themselves outside the human social contract, they cannot then claim the protections of that contract.

That said, it is hard to know with 100% accuracy whether or not someone is a terrorist (aside from catching them in the act of putting out an IED.) As I understand it, many of our detainees were turned in by their neighbors or captured by reward-seekers. Some of the detainees were not Al Queda sympathizers when we shipped them to Gitmo. Of course, as a wise friend of mine once said, once you’ve sodomized someone with a plunger, whether or not he is sympathetic to the terrorists is a moot question. You’ve made up his mind for him.

The Geneva Conventions do not apply to the torture of the detainees despite the fervent dreams of the Kos Kids. The Geneva Conventions apply only to uniformed members of a combatant signatory of the treaty. Under the Geneva Conventions, illegal combatants may be summarily executed on the battlefield. And yet:

Even if we are not bound by treaty or moral argument to refrain from torture, we still should refrain from torture.

Because it is not effective and counter-productive.

This is what all the semantic-torture-narrow-definers miss. It simply doesn’t matter how you define torture. Many reasonable people will disagree. Many reasonable people with different ideas about the origins of rights will disagree with me about whether captured terrorists have a right not to be tortured.

When we torture folks, the limited utility of largely unreliable data is more than outweighed by the negative impact on support for the American effort – internationally and domestically.

The data gathered by torture is highly unreliable. If someone is removing your spleen (major organ failure!) with a spoon, you are likely to say whatever you think your torturer wants to hear in order to make the torture stop. If someone is waterboarding you (Not torture! Not torture! We have defined it as not torture!), you are likely to say whatever you think your non-torturer wants to hear in order to make the non-torture stop.

The damage to our reputation, however, can be reliably anticipated.

It does not good, oh ye Bush apologists, to point the finger and cry “The terrorists are worse torturers!” True, and irrelevant. The terrorists aren’t trying to motivate a coalition of liberal-minded Europeans and Latte-swilling Americans.

Aside from: one of my biggest complaints about the anti-torture folks like John McCain is that they underestimate the rationality of the American public and try to ban torture on the grounds that when we torture other folks are more likely to torture our soldiers. They should simply stick to the point that torture is wrong/ineffective/counterproductive. The bad guys are going to torture our boys no matter what we do.

If you want to defend “alternative interrogation” measures, we can have a debate. But to disingenuously claim that waterboarding is not torture is unproductive. If I’m wrong about the inefficacy and counter-productivity of torture convince me. Don’t try to pretend we don’t torture.

2 Comments »
Polymath said:

Sure, we torture. Waterboarding is just a severe form of mental torture. Sensory/sleep disruption/deprivation over a long period is much more effective, if you have the time.

Torture is torture no matter what it is called. The Bush administration, wrong in this case, are not the first to parse words to their advantage.



Mageen said:

Good writing!

Also, for those who so ardently insist that torture is not torture, wait until it happens to them! And with this slide into facsism, it will happen!



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