September 15, 2006


Caption: This man learned his lesson too late. (See pictures in the last two posts.) This can happen to you if you practice "alternative interrogation techniques."

This is the third and last of three consecutive posts on the subject of torture.

Short version of the first two: for several reasons, including some really practical ones, it's not a good idea. Let's not.

For what it's worth it looks like the Senate Armed Services Committee and a majority of the US public agree.

The recent discussions by the Bush administration about the legal definition of torture make El Cabrero nostalgic for the late 1990s when legal discussions focused on what "is" is. Or was.

Here are some suggestions about how people might come up with a good definition of when the deliberate infliction of pain and degradation on people rises--or sinks-- to the level or torture.

First, let's not let the people who deliberately inflict the pain and degradation decide. Victims and perpetrators have vastly different perceptions about the experience and its significance.

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister called this "the magnitude gap" in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Perpetrators of all varieties, from idealists to sadists, tend to minimize it.

Borrowing a page from the late philosopher John Rawls A Theory of Justice, here's a suggestion about how a group of fairly rational people could come up with a good definition of torture:

*Let's assume that a "veil of ignorance" exists and in defining torture we don't know in advance who might be tortured. It could be your grandmother, a beloved child, a really nasty terrorist, or you or me.

*Let's also assume that we don't know who will be doing the torture. It could be an agent of a totalitarian regime, a psychopath, or a sincere person convinced of the necessity of the torture.

*Finally, let's assume we don't know the reasons, if any, for the torture. They could be desire for revenge or punishment, sick pleasure, boredom, or the perceived need to extract information.

Given those conditions and the chance to freely discuss the issue, we'd probably come up with a pretty good definition.

Albert Camus gets the last word:

Reprisals against civilian populations and the use of torture are crimes in which we are all involved. The fact that such things could take place among us is a humiliation that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must at least refuse to justify such methods, even on the score of efficacy. The moment they are justified, even indirectly, there are no more rules or values; all causes are equally good, and war without aims or laws sanctions the triumph of nihilism.


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