(Author’s Note: I am invoking the “special rules” portion of our comments policy for this posting. Comments must be polite, composed, and non-hysterical. This is for a serious discussion on the matter of waterboarding specifically and the nature of torture in general. Empty invective, gibbering tirades, and insulting comments will be unpublished at the earliest opportunity. Repeated offenses may result in temporary or permanent banning.)
This article about the practice of waterboarding has generated a lot of discussion about the practice, as well as just what defines “torture” and how it should be regulated or banned by our government.
My first reaction was surprise. I’d never had any real problems with waterboarding, as I understood it worked by simulating drowning. To my mind, “torture” has to involve an element of severe pain or bodily injury — and as I understood it, the experience of waterboarding tricked the subconscious into thinking one was drowning — but NOT ACTUALLY DROWNING. According to the article, though, it actually involves a partial drowning — water in the lungs and all that.
If that is the case, then I have to admit I was wrong. I’m not so certain, though, because this guy — an old blog-buddy — has some rather unpleasant things to say about the author’s credibility. I put a bit of trust in Boyd’s word, so I have my doubts about Mr. Nance’s description.
The details of that particular practice, however, are a good launching point for a serious discussion, one we ought to be holding: just what defines torture, and what sorts of controls ought to be placed on their use?
I’ve had a few ideas about torture that have been bouncing around in my head. First up, we ought to find a working definition of torture. The elements I’ve always considered part of the definition is the deliberate infliction of injury or extreme pain. In the cited definition of waterboarding, water is deliberately introduced into the lungs — and to me, that’s injury.
I’ll also toss in “reasonable fear of same.” Putting a gun to someone’s head would not cause pain or injury — as long as it isn’t loaded and no one pulls the trigger — but it’s still a form of torture to me.
On the other hand, I have few problems with fear and humiliation. That was the crux of waterboarding, as I understood it — it was spelled out beforehand “you will not die from this,” and repeated as necessary (with the subject not dying as the result). There was no injury to anything beyond the subject’s composure.
I’ve also put a great deal of thought into how to put legal restrictions on these techniques, to put some checks and balances that would act to restrain those licensed by the government to extract information from uncooperative subjects. And I have a couple of ideas that might curb abuses:
First, no information obtained through — well, let’s call it “rigorous interrogation” — can be used directly in any criminal trial. Period. It might be used to develop other evidence, that which can be obtained under more traditional means, but since it’s debatable just how reliable information obtained this way is, let’s just keep it out of court entirely. And if it can’t be verified by other means, then it wasn’t worth that much anyway. This ought to cut back on the “tortured confessions” pretty thoroughly.
Second, there should be some sort of investigation by a disinterested party or body after any “rigorous interrogation” case. The people who decided that “rigorous interrogation” was merited, and those who carried it out, must go before some panel that will review the facts and the decisions — and they WILL have the authority to sanction (or refer to legal authorities) cases where they decide that the decision or conduct was wrong. This will demand that those who are responsible for actually carrying out the “rigorous interrogation” policy will be held accountable for their actions every single time.
This might seem cumbersome, but one of the arguments on behalf of “rigorous interrogation” is that it is so rarely needed. Therefore, there shouldn’t be too much effort to add in a mandatory after-the-fact review for each instance.
Finally, we need to come up with some solid rules on just what constitutes “torture.” This usually provokes the hysteria I warned about in the introduction. “Torture is obscene, and even trying to come up with a precise definition is obscene, and you’re psychotic for wanting to parse the definition!” is a fairly decent summation of the sort of thing I’ve heard before, and don’t really think I need to hear again.
The problem is that we are a nation of laws, of details, of minutiae. Witness the whole unpleasant issue of abortion. We’ve decided that it’s legal based solely on the amount of time that passes from conception, and a difference of a single day can move the action from legal to questionable to illegal. We need to spell out just what is and what is not torture beforehand, or we end up with a situation like so many others — where the rules are hacked out by a series of confusing and often contradictory decisions, and the people we entrust with the responsibility of “rigorous interrogation” end up having to deal with “go ahead and do what you want, and we’ll decide after the fact whether or not it was legal — and punish you if it wasn’t.” And that is just not fair.
So, where do we draw the line? Where do we set the limits? What overarching principles and rules do we set?
Naturally, I think my own ideas are a good starting point — “the deliberate infliction of serious bodily injury or extreme pain.” Humiliation, fear, uncertainty, anxiety — those are all fair game. Breaking limbs, electrical shocks, or threatening to toss someone out of a helicopter from a couple thousand feet in the air — those are way, way out of bounds.
But between those two extremes are a world of gray. We need to shine a bit of light on the matter, to help find the line between the black and the white.