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.

For one thing, I think there are clear cases of particularly tough characters where someone was tortured yet in fact the torture did not result in psychological disintegration. We might think of this as analogous to contraceptive failure, though; so it isn’t fatal to the proposal.

For another, I expect there are cases of torture where the torturer couldn’t care less about the psychological disintegration of the victim: pure sadism, for example, might have no goal other than suffering-qua-suffering. Since this references the intentions of the torturer rather than the objective nature of his chosen act (the object), though, that also isn’t dispositive against.

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.

Perhaps an incoherent and inarticulate awareness of this is what is motivating the notion that waterboarding is a positive good for the victim, a faux-baptism providing absolution from the sin of betrayal on the part of the talkative post-waterboard terrorist, because it gives him a reason to do the right thing with a clear conscience. This is the same basic motivation, in fact, which appears to have applied to medieval Inquisitors; though at least in the case of the Inquisitors it was primarily the victim’s own good, not the good of others, which fueled the activity.
The problem again is that that approach proves too much, because if waterboarding is salutary in this manner, and that salutary or medicinal effect is precisely what makes it “not torture”, then why not the rack?

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§ 3 Responses to Defining Torture, Part XXXVIII

  • Tommy says:

    a faux-baptism providing absolution from the sin of betrayal on the part of the talkative post-waterboard terrorist, because it gives him a reason to do the right thing with a clear conscience.

    Wow, do people really think that? I thought the “reason to talk with a clear conscience” was specific to Islam (as understood by some subset), and not generic. Some nonsense about a rule that said you don't have to hold out against coercion. I don't remember the details.

    There may appear to be only a very fine line (logically) between punishing someone so that he recognizes the evil of his ways and reforms so that he rejects sin and adheres to the good, and imposing evil on someone so to the degree that his mental structure is altered and he no longer is capable of willing to defy the “punisher” and complies with whatever is required. But the second is clearly a diminution of freedom, while the former is freedom well used.

  • Tommy says:

    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.

    The WC (waterboarding crowd) will say that “capitulation” should not be taken as synonymous with psychological disintegration, since a person can easily capitulate well short of that event, with various motives including ones that have nothing to do with disintegration. A person can “capitulate” because he realizes that giving up information can mean that Achmed is apprehended, and hey, I've always thought that the best thing Achmed could do for the Islamic cause is to die for it. The sooner the better.

    That this is specious reasoning should be apparent from the fact that whether or not a person capitulates before he disintegrates internally, the suffering in waterboarding is the KIND of suffering that causes disintegration. Bringing the victim through a process that looks like a dead duck, smells like a dead duck, and feels like a dead duck, and then doing it over and over, is the sort of thing that is going to make the victim identify a little overmuch with being a dead duck.

    And this, finally, is the point that we need to drive home most firmly.

  • RE: Sere Training

    As mentioned in a previous post the original SERE Program was founded and developed by Colonel Nick Rowe at Fort Bragg North Carolina in the late 1970's. Colonel Rowe left the SERE School and, sadly he was assassinated by a communist terrorist in the PI on 1987 under circumstances which to this day are under heated dispute. When

    Colonel Rowe, who had spent 5-years as a VC prisoner before killing his guard and escaping, was running the SERE School students were not water boarded.

    After Colonel Rowe left the SERE School it spawned several variations, which went in several different directions, and which sponsored by different Commands and Services. Techniques like water boarding were added by some SERE Schools.

    The additions to SERE training were extremely controversial. The Army taught, then and now, that interrogation techniques like water boarding were not only unlawful, inhumane and degrading; but counter productive. No trained intelligence officer in the world would view information gained via techniques like water boarding as reliable. So, the argument went, why subject a student to a te4chnique wherein he could not betray his country?

    An Army interrogator is taught that gaining his subject's cooperation by the subject's own free will is essential to extracting reliable information during an interrogation. Coercion of any type taints whatever a subject will say during an interrogation. “Breaking” a subject during interrogation only means that teh interrogator has failed.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

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