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The torture debate

Why does the line between coercion and torture seem so shadowy now?

By Jina MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/ Staff



There has been no shortage of confusion, follow-up questioning, even sheer surprise at the series of Bush administration memos released in April by the Department of Justice. The "torture memos" are legal opinions, requested by the Central Intelligence Agency, about methods the agency wanted to use – and did use, even before the legal opinions were issued – to interrogate terrorism suspects in its custody.

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The argument the memos have fueled produces equal heat from all reaches of the political spectrum. Those who sympathize with the memos say they show that extreme measures are necessary to extract information from reluctant captives – and that those measures, particularly in a post-9/11 world – are perfectly within the law. Opponents of the Bush policies say the memos are lazy legal opinions, issued to support a premeditated conclusion and serve the political whim of the Bush administration.

And those are the most nuanced arguments.

Why do we struggle so mightily to parse torture – to define and redefine what was formally outlawed in the United Nations Convention Against Torture that 146 nations, including the US, ratified?

Like so many controversial topics, the torture memos have become the punch line of partisan punditry. At the end of April, conservative Fox News personality Sean Hannity volunteered to be waterboarded for charity; his liberal counterpart, Keith Olbermann, promised on MSNBC to donate $1,000 for every second Mr. Hannity lasted. 

Like the debate they fuel, Hannity and Mr. Olbermann miss the point. Torture isn't about how long one volunteer lasts on the waterboard. Torture is, in fact, the opposite: It's about the helplessness of the person strapped to the waterboard.

"The absence of control, the absence of any kind of ... mutual agreement about what is respected ... all of that is stripped away," says Uwe Jacobs, the clinical director of Survivors International, an outreach organization for torture survivors living in the US. "It's the same thing you see in rape. What is it, precisely, that makes rape in many cases so traumatic for people? It's not the physical pain they experience.... It is the total invasion of a space that has to remain private."

UNTIL THE 9/11 ATTACKS, no one would have thought it controversial to call waterboarding "torture," Mr. Jacobs and others say. Historians, sociologists, and political scientists have written libraries about the characteristics of torture – the powerlessness of the tortured and the absolute power of the torturer; the firm – at times, religiously sanctioned – belief in the utility of pain to extract truth.