Saturday, February 07, 2009

Waterboarding as Torture

It has always astounded me that there are defenders of the practice of that interrogation technique known as "waterboarding." In my mind, it is clearly torture; but I have heard time and time again from its defenders that it is not torture. The reasons often given to defend waterboarding as not being torture include: (1) it doesn't cause permanent physical harm or damage; (2) it is used on soldiers in their training so it can't be torture because we'd never subject our own to torture, even in a training setting; and (3) curious civilians subject themselves to controlled waterboarding to see what it's like, thus implying that it can't be torture since no one in his right mind would ever voluntarily subject himself to torture. I am sure there are other explanations, but these are the three most common ones I have heard. I find them completely unpersuasive, if not downright cynical.

Before I get into my rebuttal of each of these charges, I'd like to point out that those who claim waterboarding is not torture are implicitly accepting as a baseline that there is such a thing as torture. So, then, the question becomes what kinds of activities make up this thing called torture that everyone agrees exists. And because there does appear to be agreement on the existence of torture, we should be able to come up with some kind of mutually agreed upon definition of torture. To those who would say that waterboarding is not torture, I would ask: what, then, IS torture and why would you classify this as torture? From there we can proceed to defining torture in a way that would allow us to put waterboarding (and any other interrogation practice) up to the scrutiny of the definition. In the interest of erring on the side of moral correctness, I would argue that interrogation techniques that seek to cooerce another are assumed to be torture unless proved otherwise. Thus, the imperative of proof rests on those who argue that waterboarding is not torture. It is not incumbent upon me to prove that waterboarding is torture, but rather upon waterboarding advocates to prove that it is not torture.

Even still, let me try to rebut some of the arguments put forth by those who claim that waterboarding does not constitute torture.

First, to the argument that waterboarding doesn't cause permanent physical harm or damage, I would ask for proof of this assertion. Perhaps it doesn't leave visible marks of torture, but there are plenty of folks who are tortured who don't manifest visible marks of torture. One could argue, for instance, that electric shocks can be administered without causing permanent and visible physical harm. But electric shocks would generally be considered torture by even the most die-hard waterboarding apologists. And what's to say that waterboarding, because it certainly produces stress on the body and on the psyche, doesn't weaken the body and the mind's health? I can imagine that excessive sensations of drowning and actual water filling the lungs must do some damage to the body and the mind. It might not be so evident in the immediate aftermath of the administration of the technique, but it could easily manifest itself in phsyical and mental conditions later. Another example: breaking bones or pulling out fingernails or dislocating joints. All of these behaviors would probably be considered torture by everyone, but broken bones heal, fingernails grow back, and limbs can be put back into joint. So where's the permanent visible damage here? Finally, I read somewhere that eventually interrogators can just plug censors and probes into certain parts of the brain to stimulate the experience of excruciating pain without ever actually leaving physical marks on the body. Someone just pushes a computer button and the person on the other end might experience a "virtual" (though no less real) feeling of having bones or testicles crushed without anyone ever touching the bones or the testicles. Is this not torture?

Second, to the argument that we use waterboarding as a training technique on our own soldiers, therefore it cannot be torture since we wouldn't subject our own soldiers to torture, I would say that's hogwash. We subject our soldiers to these techniques precisely because we consider them torture and we want to train soldiers in how to manage and deal with torture. Then there is the psychological reality that soldiers in training know and trust that they will not be killed in their training exercises and also know that this training will eventually end. So the experience of waterboarding or any other interrogation practice used in training exercises comes with the knowledge of the trainees that this will end and that there is always an "out" if they cannot tolerate it. And, then again, we don't know what kinds of long-term psychological or physical outcomes this "training" will produce among our own soldiers. So to argue that we perform waterboarding on our own soldiers as if this is some kind of equivalent practice is just foolish. It is foolish because it doesn't prove anything relative to causing permanent physical or psychological harm; and it is foolish because it equates one practice with another even though the context surrounding the practice is very different.

As to the third defense of waterboarding that I pointed to previously, that civilians curious about waterboarding have subjected themselves to the technique, thus proving that it can't be torture, I would reiterate the point made above concerning the context of the experience. Such civilians are curious about the experience because they may not be able to fathom what the experience is like. We can all imagine the physical pain that comes with electric shock or smashing fingers or broken bones or dislocated joints because we may have experienced these sensations well enough to know the physical and psychological pain of this. But perhaps those who submit themselves to waterboarding just find it hard to imagine the kind of trauma it induces. But, I've had a near-drowning experience and, based on that, I would NEVER subject myself to waterboarding. The trauma of suffocating and drowning was worse than any other imaginable pain I've endured. I would much rather have my fingernails pulled out than experience waterboarding. Just because some civilians are curious about something doesn't mean that what they are curious about is not torturous. And the fact that those who subject themselves to a very controlled experiment almost always come out of the experience traumatized and conceding the torturous nature of the experience must count for something.

I know that this has been well-covered territory, but common sense at all levels points to the practice of waterboarding as torture. It's up to its apologists to prove conclusively that it is not -- first by defining torture themselves, and then providing convincing evidence that waterboarding as a practice does not meet that definition.


Eric said...

I don't think you can have this discussion without putting forward a definition for the word torture. By many definitions, I would easily concede that waterboarding is torture, but by those same definitons, forcing me to listen to Paul Krugman would also be torture. And while I would agree that forcing me to listen to Krugman belongs in a different category of torture than waterboarding, I'd also argue that waterboarding belongs in a different category of torture than pulling fingernails and breaking bones, (which in turn belong in a different category than harming a prisoner's loved ones in order to get them to talk).

Do you advocate any form of physical and/or mental distress in order to attempt to compel a captured terrorist to give information? Personally, I think some of the stuff we readily allow (such as sleep deprivation) is crueller than waterboarding... Given a choice, I'd take a beating or be waterboarded rather than be kept awake for three or four days.

Huck said...

I'm all for putting forth a definition of "torture." Although I'd probably expound upon it a bit, I'd say that the definition of torture as provided by the Convention against Torture is adequate. It reads: "the term 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

By that definition, being forced to listen to Paul Krugman as I think you mean it (i.e. being subjected to ideas you disagree with) cannot by any serious stretch be considered "torture." But I'd say that being forced to listen to Paul Krugman, or Rush Limbaugh, or Barry Manilow, or any sounds, for that matter, at loud volumes in soundbites repeated over and over for extended periods of time could, indeed, be considered torture.

I'm certain that there are some legitimate debates with regard to whether some specific actions constitute real torture, but being forced to listen to Paul Krugman or Rush Limbaugh is not one of them unless the purpose of listening to them is more than simply to have to endure an occasional distasteful argument.

I think the key component to the definition above is defining what constitutes "severe" pain or suffering. I think some kinds of physical or mental distress or discomfort can fall within a pattern of interrogation that doesn't constitute torture. But I would call the simulation of drowning and the actual filling up of the lungs with water to be "severe" mental and physical pain or suffering. I'd also say the same of sleep deprivation, too. I, for one, would consider sleep deprivation to constitute torture. And I don't think it is something "we readily allow" -- at least, it's certainly not something I readily allow. So, I would agree with you that "sleep deprivation" is torture. But what about waterboarding?

We can certainly put things in a "different category" of torture, but let's remember that we're still calling it all "torture." And once we do that, engaging in that practice, regardless of the category, always crosses the line.

I don't buy for a second that we human beings can't intuitively arrive at consensus as to what constitutes torture. I might prefer having my fingernails pulled out over waterboarding, but I'd still say that both are torture by any common sensical understanding of that term.

Eric said...

Fair enough. According to the definition you chose, waterboarding would indeed be torture. I do think the qualitative differences in the severity and types of pain between varying methods is important (just like following traffic laws... going 7mph over the speed limit is often excusable, but driving 200mph on a public road would almost never be).

So if your question was simply whether waterboarding can be considered torture according to certain definitions, then the answer would be yes.

I assume the next question would then be, do we ever want to use interrogation methods that cause severe pain in order to attempt to acquire information that could save lives. We can get into all kinds of theoretical situations, but at the end of the day, I think you'll find very few people who wouldn't be willing to inflict (either personally or by proxy)severe pain on someone in order to obatin information that would save the life of a family member.

So if we agree that most people would be willing to advocate torture in certain circumstances, the next question is whether or not we should ever allow the government to do it on our behalf.

Before proceeding, I will wait for your response to see if we agree on the qualifiers for that question (namely, that most people would advocate torture in some circumstances).

Huck said...

Eric - Hope you don't mind, but I deleted the duplicate posting. With regard to the subject, I am afraid we are going to be parting paths. I don't agree that most people would be willing to advocate torture in certain circumstances. I base my belief on the fact that most people do not make the argument that torture is ever acceptable, opting instead to claim certain behaviors as not constituting torture. Second, even if people were apologists for torture in some circumstances, such people, it seems to me, would have to abandon all pretenses to adhere to the Geneva Conventions or to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or even to appeals to defend basic human dignity. John McCain was tortured by the Vietnamese, but I am sure the Vietnamese would argue (and not without some merit) that their lives and the lives of their loved ones depended on what information they could get out of John McCain about US war plans. Also, at a fundamental philosophical level, condoning torture under some circumstances would require relativizing the morality of torture, essentially making the argument that torture is sometimes morally justifiable. Once one starts traversing that slippery slope, any claims to prohibit torture on the basis of some appeal to fundamental human rights and human dignity would crumble. For then anyone can say that torture is necessary to protect people without being asked to demonstrate just how such protection is served.

Eric said...

"I don't agree that most people would be willing to advocate torture in certain circumstances. I base my belief on the fact that most people do not make the argument that torture is ever acceptable, opting instead to claim certain behaviors as not constituting torture."

Yes, we definitely disagree on this. I think most people would be willing to have a kidnapper waterboarded if no other methods had been able to compel the kidnapper to reveal the location of their children or other loved ones.

Maybe they would not consider that to be torture, but you and I have both agreed that it is covered as such under the definition you chose, so for the scope of this discussion anybody who'd be willing to do such a thing would be willing to torture under certain circumstacnes, regardless of what they call it.

"Once one starts traversing that slippery slope, any claims to prohibit torture on the basis of some appeal to fundamental human rights and human dignity would crumble."

I disagree. We already have mechanisms which determine when extreme behaviours are appropriate, this would just be another one. We allow our military to kill civilians whilst in pursuit of military targets during wartime, but a policeman would likely lose his job or worse for killing a civilian in pursuit of a criminal. War comes with many special rules, and I am perfectly willing to concede that it requires degrees of brutality in order to be won, especially in cases where the recipients of torture are not even soldiers in any kind of nationalized army, but instead a loose-knit consortium of terrorists of various nationalities who are plotting direct attacks on American civilians (not just our military). I see no reason why you couldn't draw a line of demarcation between those types of prisoners and others, and expect it to be followed without falling down a slippery slope. The fact that our military had this method (waterboarding) available to them and only decided to use it three times, on high level Al Queda operatives, seems to bear this out.

Additionally, this is why I felt it so important to note the qualitative differences between different types of torture. When you set the bar high enough to exclude any form of interogation that can be construed to induce "severe" mental or physical pain or suffering, you lump things like sleep deprivation in with things like cutting off fingers, and those just don't reasonably belong in the same category, even if they are both severe.

Huck said...

Eric - Good points. But we do disagree. As I pointed to earlier, we would need to define what we mean by "severe" and I think, when it comes to something as morally grave as torture, we need to identify actions that would constitute it. Sure, cutting off fingers and sleep deprivation are different categories of "severe" torture; but what's the value in making such a distinction if we both agree that each action is "severe" mental or physical paing or suffering. For the purposes of identifying unacceptable torture, they're both of a piece. And they both belong share that category. Do you think sleep deprivation should be acceptable torture whereas cutting off fingers shouldn't be acceptable torture? I just don't follow the logic that would set up a threshhold of unacceptable kinds of behaviors and then say that some subjective differentiation of these behaviors that go beyond that threshhold make one form of torture less problematic of another form of torture. What's the purpose of defining torture then? More later, but I have to sign off now.

Eric said...

"For the purposes of identifying unacceptable torture, they're both of a piece."

And there it is, the crux of the matter: Why should "severe" be "unacceptable" always and in all cases?

"Do you think sleep deprivation should be acceptable torture whereas cutting off fingers shouldn't be acceptable torture?"

In some cases, yes, because sleep deprivation, while I personally would consider it to be severe, is nowhere near as severe as cutting off fingers. While they could both be considered torture under your definition, the gulf between the severity of the two actions warrants some kind of distinction. Namely, the effects of one wear off quickly, while the other creates a permanent physical handicap.

"What's the purpose of defining torture then?"

Because we need a word to describe the act of creating severe physical or mental distress. Our disagreement only arises because I don't automatically accept the qualifier that, in times of war and against certain enemies, this should always be illegal in every single form.

Daisy said...

I think that if you are experiencing so much discomfort that you dont want to face the world it is torture.
Thats just my opinion. I for one hate pain, and would rather live without any pain, small or large.