Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Torture

There has been much discussion over at Shea's of what methods may be justifiably used in interrogation. Unsurprisingly, there has been much debate over what qualifies as torture- a debate which I feel only captures part of what is at stake here.

Mark takes as a jumping-off point an excerpt from an Andrew Sullivan post, which includes this description of a series of interrogations, taken from a Pentagon report:
He was kept awake for 18 - 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 consecutive days, he was forced to wear bras and thongs on his head, he was prevented from praying, he was forced to crawl around on a dog leash to perform dog tricks, he was told his mother and sister were whores, he was subjected to extensive "cavity searches" (after 160 days in solitary confinement) and then "on seventeen ocasions, between 13 Dec 02 and 14 Jan 03, interrogators, during interrogations, poured water over the subject.
Now, Sullivan contends that the reference to water being poured over the subject is a reference to water-boarding (helpfully explained for us here). If so, it would be fairly characterized as torture. But most of what was evilly done doesn't fit well with a traditional understanding of torture- rather, it is equally illegitimate dehumanizing treatment of the prisoner. Forcing prisoners to act like dogs is but the most literal example of this- but making prisoners wear thongs, and subjecting them to unneccessary cavity searches are also in this category. Preventing a prisoner from praying is also beyond the pale. Simply put, it is always wrong to treat any man in a manner that violates his innate dignity.

So, we can say there is torture proper- viz., the infliction of severe or excruciating pain or suffering, be it of body or of mind (the OED's definition). There is also the dehumanizing treatment which seems to be the US military's metier: the cruelty of treating a person as sub-human. Both of these are intrinsically evil, and should not be justified under any circumstances, but ought to be kept conceptually distinct.

What about the "ticking bomb" scenario, much beloved of those who, in a particularly Orwellian turn of phrase, like to defend "agressive interrogation techniques"? I would hope that everyone would recognize that there are intrinsically wrong actions, even in such extreme circumstances. Shooting a terrorist's mother or little sister in front of him, even if we expected this to save hundreds of lives, would be wrong. Why is such a utilitarian calculation wrong? Where our actions are not constrained by intrinsic moral evils, we must choose our path with prudence and wisdom- but such circumstances are limited, because we cannot know with certainty the results of our actions- consequences are hidden from us. There is a certain blindness to the human condition, which is why we must never presume to order the future to our design by ignoring the ethics confronting us in the present.

One question remains- what methods may be used in conducting an interrogation? Certainly, mild psychological stress: four or five hours' sleep, as described above seems not unreasonable. Mocking a prisoner's religious belief or practice would likewise be permissable, provided one did not force the prisoner to participate. Finally, prisoners are not entitled, as a matter of natural right, to due process. Similarly, corporal punishment is not intrinsically wrong. In normal criminal circumstances, prudence demands due process and an abscence of corporal punishment. In situations where crucial information is being withheld, I believe it would be permissable to dispense with the normal due process rights of a prisoner, and to administer physical punishments in conjunction with an interrogation. Such physical punishments could be merely throwing a prisoner against the wall, or might, at an extreme, include lashes. One cannot justify physical means outside of what would be a just punishment for whatever crime or wrong they have done, nor can techiniques of torture be slipped in under the guise of 'punishment': the scope of legitimate corporal punishment is extremely narrow.

I think this answer makes sense- one is not obligated to treat a terrorist with kid gloves, but neither is one permitted to torture or dehumanize him.

2 Comments:

Blogger Daniel Cowper said...

A Note: metier is french for duty, or more idiomatically, vocation.
Unless you are using it sarcastically to express the idea of a sphere of activity in which the subject expresses himself fully, the Language Police cannot support you.

November 25, 2005 12:19 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...

Guilty- I suppose I'm not far from using it as vocation, but still, guilty as charged.

November 25, 2005 12:48 PM  

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