Monday, June 11, 2007

BIG-T TORTURE IS BAD, But little-t torture is good?!

Defenders of "enhanced interrogation techniques" like presidential hopeful Rudy Guiliani (not to mention the sitting President) are gun-shy when it comes to using the word "torture." They don't like to hear it or speak it. They of course deplore torture. They find it offensive and un-American. But in a crisis situation--the famous ticking bomb scenario--they would authorize their people to use any technique at their disposal--water-boarding, sleep deprivation, physical blows, starvation, threats, psych-ops, sexual humiliation, and so on--to extract intelligence that might save American lives.

Is it just me, or does this strike anyone else as a difference that makes no difference? Too frequently there seems to be a wink-wink, nudge-nudge game going on in this kind of rhetoric. "I don't approve of torture, but I do approve (*wink-wink*) of whatever it takes (*nudge-nudge*) to get the info we need to know (*snicker*)."
What's going on with euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" is, I think, a specious division of torture into two sorts: Torture (big T) and torture (little t). Big-T Torture is what the bad guys do. Little-t torture is what the good guys do. What distinguishes the two kinds is their gruesomeness. Acts such as eye-gouging and electric shock to the genitals are Torture, but water-boarding (at least according to the White House and Justice Department) and sleep deprivation are torture. This way of thinking is so honestly (and creepily) summed up in a recent comment on the excellent blog The Fire and the Rose that it's worth quoting. What I'm calling "little-t torture" and the White House calls "enhanced interrogation," the commentator calls "pro-torture."
Pro-torture means within certain limits strongly coercing intelligence out of criminals or those who know and protect them. It does not sadistically seek their permanent harm or death like the TORTURE of tyrants and despotic regimes. Can we have some nuance please...? No one wants to burn people alive and chuckle, ram hot iron up people rears, rape their wives in front of them, or drag their dead bodies through the streets in humiliation. We want info desperately bad. Once it is given the techniques terminate. Other torture victims are given no exit option. They are there to be tortured, disciplined. Different ends in view.
The Torture/torture distinction, which (unlike in the passage just quoted) usually goes unspoken, is both naive and downright dangerous for a number of reasons.
In the first place, it perpetuates the myth that the primary purpose of torture is to extract intelligence. But most torture performed throughout the world has no interrogatory purpose whatsoever. According to Amnesty International, already-incarcerated "criminals," not captured terrorist suspects, are the main victims of torture. Criminal prisoners are powerless, looked-down-upon, and reviled, all of which are open invitations to physical and psychological abuse. In the U.S., because of the scandals involving Abu Ghraib and Gitmo--not to mention pernicious television shows like "24"--torture is thought of almost exclusively as interrogatory. But in reality, it's a way of subduing dissent, exercising authority, and expressing contempt.
Another reason for doubting the distinction is that official sanctioning of some kinds of physical abuse opens the door to ever-escalating levels of physical abuse. It makes sense. Physical abuse of prisoners or captives is rarely good-blooded (forget all the B-movies you've seen). Torturers almost always work themselves up into intense anger and even rage; they need this volcanic energy to sustain them. The conceit that physical abuse can be controlled or managed simply isn't in keeping with everything we know about the pattern of torture.
Moreover, the Torture/torture distinction is dangerous is because it's irrelevant. Intelligence and military experts in interrogation concur: information gathered by physically and psychologically abusive interrogation, regardless of whether it's the T or t variety, is rarely reliable. Sooner or later, torture victims will say whatever their torturers want them to. Most victims of interrogatory torture don't know anything of value anyway. The tragedy is that their torturers continue the abuse in the false expectation that eventually they'll hit paydirt. But this isn't likely. Ask yourself this: if the Gitmo prisoners had actually given U.S. intelligence any useful information, would they still be sequestered in that God-forsaken camp?
But perhaps the most obvious reason why the Torture/torture distinction is crazy is that it falsely presumes that the presence or absence of "morally unacceptable" Torture is determined by the degree of brutality. Obviously some techniques used by torturers will be more brutal than others. But this doesn't mean that some abusive techniques are either not torturous or are "morally acceptable" forms of torture. Nobody wants to say that sleep deprivation is as horrible a technique as eye-gouging. But to deny that it's a form of torture? Incredible.
Torture is better defined in functional terms. Instead of toting up lists of acceptable vs unacceptable techniques, we'd be better off thinking of torture in terms of what it does to the person upon whom it's inflicted. Earlier posts have mentioned the all-too-predictable consequences of torture: fragmentation of identity, regression, amnesia, PTSD. Contrary to our quoted defender of little-t torture, the torment doesn't have a terminus. Even if they manage to walk out of their torture cells back into the normal world, torture victims remain torture victims for the rest of their lives. It takes only a passing familiarity with their memoirs to recognize this.