Using Torture to Gather Intelligence About Terrorism
Tim Sonnreich, February 2005.
Once upon a time (as in about 4 years ago) the issue of 'torture' (i.e. whether it is ever acceptable to use it) was very rarely debated - and when it was debated, defending torture was considered an extremely hardline to defend. That reality existed for a good reason - namely that torture is almost unimaginably terrible, and should never be something that people speak of lightly. In fact the few times I remember torture being raised in debates at IV's was, like slavery, as an almost perfect example of a natural human right - the sort of thing that was an incontrovertibly good principle (the prohibition on its use that is) regardless of culture, religion, ethnicity, etc.
However, thanks to the Bush Administration's War on Terror, the legitimacy of torture as a mechanism for combating terrorism has leaped to front and centre of many topic selectors' minds. In the current climate it's good that we're debating torture, since it's definitely going on, in US bases in Cuba (Guantanamo Bay), Iraq, Diego Garcia and in the secret places of US allies like Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Torture of 'terror suspects' is occurring on a daily basis and so we should most definitely be discussing it.
My problem is that like many ultra-hardlines (eg. pro-hard-core drug legalisation and pro-child labour) in the rarified world of debating these highly counter-intuitive positions have become far too easy to defend. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you can't successfully defend torture in a debate (in fact I think it's a great topic when done well), I just think the debate has become too narrow - too devoid of some basic understanding of what torture is, and how it's used - which makes the debate far too slanted to the side defending the nearly indefensible.
The purpose of this article is to remind some people of why there was, until very recently, a nearly universal revulsion to the practice of torture by the international community. This is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion of all the factors in the torture debate, the idea is to help give more breadth and sophistication to the fairly good level of analysis that most people seem to have been able to figure out for themselves. Hopefully this article will help restore the natural (in)balance of this debate which based on my experience, has unfortunately been lost.
The language of torture.
The term 'torture', like the term 'pornography', is almost impossibly vague, and that's good news for the team defending the practice because it gives them the scope to pick and choose just what they are willing to defend, without stepping too far outside the 'most reasonable' definition of the word. In broad terms I would categorise torture in two ways (and these always need to be explained in a debate because these terms are contested academically, and in public commentary) 'active' and 'passive' torture.
Passive torture is primarily psychological torture - such as sleep deprivation through environmental manipulation (bright lights, constant loud music/sounds, extreme cold, cramped conditions, 'stress positions', etc) or nutritional restrictions designed to significantly weaken the willpower of a subject (so not starvation, but something pretty close). Reverse treatment, sensory deprivation such as protracted isolation in conditions devoid of stimuli (pitch black, no sound, no communication, etc) can also provoke a similar effect. The idea is to psychologically wear-down the subject to the point of mental (and physical) exhaustion. At this point the subject is said to be far more susceptible to coercion and intimidation, or will simply divulge information to gain respite from the aforementioned treatment.
This is the kind of torture that the Bush Administration has publicly endorsed as acceptable, although they say its acceptable because it is not torture -...
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