The Subjective Nature of Torture

By now, I'm sure you've all read of the terrible things we did to Abu Zubaydah, what with putting a caterpillar in his prison cell and all -- err, check that -- considering to put a caterpillar in his cell. Turns out the chap admitted to a fear of insects, so the CIA thought dangling some bugs in front of his face might get him to spill the beans about the next skyscraper he sought to knock down.

This excruciating revelation comes in the aftermath of President Obama's decision to release the former Bush administration's so-called "torture memos." Glenn Greenwald at called the content in the memos "unbelievably ugly and grotesque," highlighting the "sadistic criminality that consumed our government." Andrew Sullivan offered a more somber reflection: "If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos." One awaits the vein-in-forehead "special comment" from Mr. Olbermann, misplaced fatalism and highfalutin high-horsism in fourth gear.

The faux outrage and response to the memos recall an old international law class, from some years ago, where the discussion turned to the immorality of coercive interrogation. The United States was torturing prisoners, the professor suggested, because the al-Qaeda detainees were subjected to female interrogators, barking dogs, and loud music. As fundamentalist Muslims, the detainees were not "comfortable" with women "speaking down" to them, the professor contended. Nor were they fans of the heavy metal music played in their cell. Additionally, as Middle Easterners, they were accustomed to a society where dogs are undomesticated, dangerous animals -- think: the way Westerners perceive wolves -- or so the professor's argument went.

It was at that moment that I realized how similar these "torturous" acts were to my own everyday lifestyle. "Wait a second," I interjected. "Being in the same room with a dog, listening to Metallica, and getting reprimanded by a female for something she thinks I did wrong? That's not torture. That's my Friday night!"

The line got a pretty good laugh, which was the intent (isn't it always?). But the flippancy of the joke didn't undermine the legitimacy of its core truth.

To afford captured detainees the ability to determine what is and is not objectively torture based upon their subjective cultural preferences, religious sensitivities, or personal dislikes and fears is not only asinine morality and poor practicality -- but bad law, as well. Imagine if we enforced this logic to the fullest extent or at least to its natural conclusion.

Would, say, placing bananas in the cell of a cibophobic al-Qaeda detainee constitute torture? Would it be torture if an unattractive and homely interrogator pleasantly asked a cacophobic detainee a few questions? What about a murderous dikephobic captive, who simply couldn't stand being brought to justice? Perhaps imprisonment itself is torturous, for a koinoniphobe. Or maybe, for an eleutherophobic jihadist, the true torture occurs during those soccer matches outside in the Gitmo courtyard. What if the detainee's "religion" required frequent conjugal visits -- and a few Budweisers, while we're at it?