Torture, like insomnia shouldn't keep you up at night

Torture.  It sounds bad when you say it like that.  In the early days of information gathering in Afghanistan, interrogations were often conducted with “extreme prejudice”, but that description was quickly replaced with “enhanced interrogation methods”.

“Extreme prejudice” was deemed politically incorrect and reserved to describe a prisoner’s final disposition.  Enhanced interrogation sounds better, but I know that when Dick Cheney says it, he means torture.

Permanent solutions with extreme prejudice are still part of the repertoire of certain American organizations.  That’s all I can say about that.

Even after all the brouhaha, the politicization, the protests and the release of the CIA Torture Report, many of us still don’t have a clear picture of what, exactly constitutes torture.

We can probably all agree that pulling out a prisoners finger nails or wiring up his testicles and nipples to a truck battery can’t be euphemized as anything other than torture.

But where, exactly is that line and how do we know when we’ve crossed it?

According the U.S. Code,  “torture” is something committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.

It then goes on to define each of the terms and narrowing their definitions.  There is no list of specific actions defined as torture.

In the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the United States ratified in 1994, torture is defined as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” by or at the instigation of a public official in order to obtain information or a confession or to punish the person “for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or [for] intimidating or coercing him or a third person for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.”

Under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, acts of “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment, …outrages upon personal dignity, [and] in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment” are prohibited. Furthermore, the U.S. Army Field Manual section 34-52 on interrogations states that the parameters described in the Convention are the “definite limits on measures which can be taken to induce an Enemy Prisoner of War to cooperate.

That’s a lot to take in, no?  Some of it sounds like my childhood, some like my first marriage.

First, let’s just discount whatever the United Nations says.  Why do we even support it?  Among current members of the U.N. Human Rights Council are Congo, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Russian Federation and Cuba.

That’s like having T. Rex guard your sheep.

One thing we can agree upon is that the descriptions of torture ask more questions than they answer.

Many would argue that torture doesn’t work.  The 1992 U.S. Army Interrogation Field Manual 34-52 states: “Experience indicates that the use of prohibited techniques is not necessary to gain the cooperation of interrogation sources. Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

Officially, the FBI maintains that torture is not necessary. If someone has information, they are just as likely, if not more so, to disclose the information after non-abusive interrogation tactics. They warn against the possibility of torturing someone who has no information to give and say that a person will likely confess to anything to stop torture, making any information obtained unreliable.

The Bush Administration justified the maltreatment of prisoners of the “war on terror” because the detainees were unlawful enemy combatants, not guaranteed the rights dictated in the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law.  The Attorney General’s Office proclaimed that physical pain constituting torture “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Anything below this threshold is just “cruel, inhuman or degrading kind of treatment,” which, although prohibited under the Convention, does not constitute a punishable offense.

Abuses at Guantanamo Bay,  Abu Ghraib, Bagram airbase & other facilities in Afghanistan include:  Solitary confinement,  sleep deprivation, exposure to prolonged temperature extremes, beatings, sexual harassment, rape or threats of rape, deprivation of medical treatment, forced nudity, the use of dogs to frighten detainees and pouring cold water on naked detainees.

None of the reports listed anything about fingernails or truck batteries, while  some of the abuses listed offended the prisoners’ Muslim sensibilities, modesty or dietary practices.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded 183 times without giving up much in the way of information.  Then again, it didn’t kill him, either.

Assuming now that we have a vague idea that torture is something quite unpleasant, we’re left with the question of whether or not we think it’s appropriate, allowable or American in virtue.

Damned if I know, but consider this before you decree what you would or wouldn’t do if you were in a situation which is only hypothetical to you.  You don’t know what you would or wouldn’t do until you find yourself in that exact situation.

We all like to grab the higher moral ground, but the litmus test is what you actually did or did not do when confronted with the situation about which you’ve appointed yourself an expert.

Your child is buried in an underground vault with only 30-45 minutes of air left and only the man in front of you, tied to a chair knows the location of that underground vault.  Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we really don’t know what we would do in those exigent circumstances.  We can only guess.  In the mean time, hand me the pliers.

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