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 Salon.com 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?
We've all heard talking heads pontificate about the "slippery slope of interrogation," but never did I consider its silliest ramifications, i.e., allowing the interrogated to determine what the interrogator is and isn't allowed to do -- with the detainee's personal preferences acting as the barometer. Such interrogations are bound to fail, if not on their face, then under the weight of their own self-destructive stupidity.
And yet, that is precisely what happened here: Zubaydah helps slaughter thousands of Americans -- after all, for all their carnage, Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev never took a chunk out of lower Manhattan -- and our response is to first ponder the idea of using Zubaydah's irrational fear of insects against him, and then wuss out at the last minute. What a vengeful, tortuous society we have become. Mr. Sullivan, save our democracy!
As for the more "physical" interrogation techniques -- "facial hold," slapping, and stress positions, etc. -- they all have "jiu jitsu class" written all over them (sadomasochists would probably enjoy much of it). And getting water poured on your nose for thirty seconds? I had a college buddy who did that to get into Alpha Phi Delta -- except, unlike Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he didn't have a nearby physician handy.
Hyperbole aside, you get the drift. Exploiting an al-Qaeda detainee's personal idiosyncrasies, cultural inclinations, religious superstitions, and psychological defects is not objectively torture. The harm inflicted exists only within the detainee's mind.
Consider this context: the United States has the world's largest prison population (which is terrible, but that's a separate debate). There are 2.5 million inmates in the United States. Rest assured, in these prisons, nearly every day, someway, somehow, someone manages to get their ass kicked. Violence arises, fights occur, "stuff happens" -- to quote a former defense chief. Punches are thrown, hits are landed, bones are broken, weapons are crafted, threats are issued, dogs are unleashed, solitary confinement is utilized, and riots are put down efficiently. The very premise behind the job application for a correctional facility officer, if applied in another context, would likely lead to a war crimes tribunal.
And yet is this torture? Does this represent an end to the American way of life, the demise of our democracy, the upheaval of our social fabric, and downfall of our liberty? Are op-eds written about the "harsh" and "grotesque" nature of domestic imprisonment? Do uppity politicians go on cable channels, decrying and yelping from their soapbox? Does Sen. Durbin castigate U.S. prison guards as the moral equivalent of the Nazis and the Pol Pot regime, as he did U.S. soldiers?
Pardon the levity. True torture is, in fact, a serious issue. In the few instances where torture was committed -- Abu Ghraib, for instance -- the United States was correct in punishing the culprits. But that was an exercise of individual juvenility and cruelty, not official, state-sanctioned intelligence gathering of high-value targets.
We will never have a mature national discourse regarding proper interrogation and what does and does not constitute torture until we can differentiate between the two, embrace the "slippery slope" dilemmas as necessary points of contention, and move past the slanderous pastime of political posturing.
After the reaction to these memos, my money's on that not happening anytime soon.