Monday, December 19, 2005

Is It Torture?

Given that some people have a great deal of trouble deciding what is torture and what is not, I propose the following test:

If you wish to assert that something is not torture, you subject yourself to the technique at the hands of those who disagree. If, after a standard application of the technique, you continue to insist that the technique is not torture, you win! If you confess that it is torture, even if just to get things to stop, you lose.

This may be a suprisingly fast process:
Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.
The larger question is whether you get valid information through torture, or torture-like techniques (if you prefer not to use the T-word). My point is not so much that you need to admit that these techniques constitute torture - it is that you would admit that they were torture, often within a few minutes of their onset.

Do you think Khalid Sheik Mohammed gave a full and truthful account of everything he knew after one round of waterboarding? Or do you go for round two, round three, and additional rounds until you are sure? And are you sure because the story he gives you is consistent? Or are you sure when he starts telling you what you want to hear?

The rational torture victim is probably a lot like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man - "What do you want me to say so I can get out of this?":
Christian Szell: Is it safe?... Is it safe?
Babe: You're talking to me?
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Is what safe?
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: I don't know what you mean. I can't tell you something's safe or not, unless I know specifically what you're talking about.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Tell me what the "it" refers to.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: Yes, it's safe, it's very safe, it's so safe you wouldn't believe it.
Christian Szell: Is it safe?
Babe: No. It's not safe, it's... very dangerous, be careful.
(A more personal account of torture and its impact on society is available in the Washington Post.)