Defining Torture, Part XXXVIII
February 28, 2010 § 3 Comments
In the comments below Tommy writes:
What I found most interesting in the [Christopher O. Tollefsen] quote, though, is the suggestion that what is at the heart of torture is psychological disintegration.
We’ve discussed that before, though I couldn’t possibly come up with a reference to exactly where offhand.
I’m very sympathetic to it as a point of view, though it isn’t without issues.
So there is some merit to the approach. Comparing it to murder, we might provisionally call an instance of torture which fails to produce psychological disintegration attempted torture. That deals with the obviously ludicrous objection that because the victim didn’t in fact die/psychologically disintegrate, what was done was not murder/torture: there isn’t anything about attempted murder which makes it morally acceptable as distinguished from a successful murder. And since torture refers to behaviors the objective nature of which is to produce psychological disintegration in the victim, there is no such thing as “attempted torture”: torture just is the choice of such behaviors, whether or not they produce psychological disintegration in the particular case. So we can drop the “provisional attempted” and just refer to such behaviors as torture, full stop. Like “attempted contraception,” the fact of failure in a particular instance doesn’t change the objective nature of the act.
Where that gets us is that if behavior X is objectively a kind of behavior which inherently (though not in every case) produces psychological disintegration in the victim – much as a sexual act with a condom is a kind of behavior which alters a sexual act to be ‘completed’ yet infertile, even though in some signate cases fertility is not blocked – behavior X is torture. Furthermore, any behavior carried out with the intention of producing psychological disintegration in the victim is torture, under the rubric of formal cooperation.
That is as close to a clear definition of torture as we’ve had, I think.
It won’t satisfy the waterboarding crowd, of course, because waterboarding precisely as described in Courting Disaster, carried out deliberately and repeatedly until the hardened terrorist capitulates, fits like a glove. And SERE training, deliberately limited such that it introduces the trainee to the procedure as a training exercise but carefully does not take it to the point of actual psychological disintegration, does not – though there could be cases, in effect the “involuntary manslaughter” of torture, where psychological disintegration occurs by accident. This adds some strength to the prudential argument against SERE training, though it is not dispositive: an actual case of psychological disintegration in SERE training would be analogous to a fatal training accident.