The torture debate
Why does the line between coercion and torture seem so shadowy now?
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What was disclosed in a 2005 memo by Stephen Bradbury, Bush's principal deputy assistant attorney general, was concern about the Constitution's preclusion of punishments that "shock the conscience." He notes that there is "significant evidence that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques might 'shock the conscience' in at least some contexts." He acknowledges that the State Department's definition of torture seemed at odds with the Justice Department's. In State's annual human rights reports, it objected to torture techniques – including some described in the memos – used in Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, and Iran.Skip to next paragraph
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But Mr. Bradbury says the constitutional standard is "highly context-specific." In this context, when the techniques are used to pursue intelligence "to protect against grave terrorist threats," he writes, the CIA is in the clear. The countries of concern to the State Department, he argues, used techniques "that go far beyond" the CIA's. Furthermore, those countries use torture for different reasons, and the CIA tries to "minimize the risk of suffering or injury and to avoid inflicting any serious or lasting physical or psychological harm." His logic: The CIA's ends are justified, just as its means are judicious.
SWIRLING AROUND THE MEMOS' FINDINGS are inflamed disagreements about whether torture works – indeed, whether the possibility of a ticking time bomb is enough to outweigh our otherwise universal moral hesitation. Politics aside, no reasonable person likes torture. No such person believes that beating the soles of someone's feet, or hanging someone by their wrists, or pulling off someone's fingernails, is anything but reprehensible. It's probable that these are the gruesome practices President Bush had in mind when he insisted, "We don't torture."
The fact that Americans disagree on that may not be a promising sign.
In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote, "[P]olitical speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face."
Professor Horton says, "You could just add to the list of examples, 'enhanced interrogation techniques' for torture. 'Enhanced' – stronger! Better! Brighter! – who could object to that? Language is a weapon that's used by the administration in their campaign for support for what they're doing."
So have we just been duping ourselves? If so, and we're willing to ask why we perpetuate – by another name – practices we'd have decried as torture years ago, what could we say? That this is how it always happens, according to Professor Rejali.
Two years ago, he published "Torture and Democracy," a history of modern torture. "Every time a country engages in these techniques," he says, they reevaluate the definition of torture. "When France used their techniques, all of a sudden they were 'pushed interrogation.' The Germans called it 'sharpened interrogation.' " So what does our use of, and argument over, "enhanced interrogation" mean?
"Our debate," Rejali says, "is no different than [that in] any other country."