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"Faith is not a good reason to believe in any one thing. It's a bad reason to believe in everything. Faith is not synonymous with any one idea; it is synonymous with any strongly held idea, true or not. But one thing faith is not synonymous with is a logically justified idea."

September 8, 2010

What is Torture?

First of all, let me apologize for my absence. And for those of you who are thinking "I don't care" you're lying. Of course you do. You are reading this aren't you? Exactly, so shut up.

There's been some recent discussion over the use of water-boarding by US interrogators overseas. Is water-boarding torture? Should the US allow its interrogators to torture prisoners? How do we answer these questions? Well I'm going to try.

A music group known as "The Black Eyed Peas" have come out against America's sponsorship of torture over seas, as well as the wars in general. They've even gone so far as to say that America, and more specifically the CIA, are terrorist groups in their own right.

First, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. If you wanted to learn something about human rights, warfare, torture and political wartime policy, would you ask a pop star? Of course not. Some people might ask... "But Sarge, don't they have a right to their own opinions?"... They have a right to freedom of speech, which means you're allowed to speak your mind. But simply because they have a right to have an opinion does not make their opinion logical, valid or even worth listening to, and don't call me "Sarge!" It certainly doesn't make them experts on the situation. So please, stop listening to all the people from Hollywood when it comes to your political positions.

Second, their statement that the CIA is a terrorist organization would only be true if you assume that the definition of terrorist is anyone who inflicts terror. Sure, you can say that's the definition simply because the word "terror" is in the word "terrorist" but that doesn't make it so. There are people who are terrified by clowns. Does this make a clown a terrorist? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. Perhaps you're saying to yourself that the difference is that any terror a clown might cause is unintentional, where as the terror brought on by Al Queda is deliberate. (For the record, I sincerely believe that some clowns intend to inflict deliberate terror in the hearts of your children) In that case, is Wes Craven a terrorist? He obviously intends to inflict terror upon you. Should he count? Of course not. Perhaps the threat of physical harm along with inflicted terror is what makes someone a terrorist. In that case, isn't every violent criminal in the world a terrorist? Isn't every soldier who's ever lived a terrorist? Of course not, that's too broad brush. But maybe that's the point? Maybe the use of the term "terrorist" has become far too broad brush, and we need to stop using it whenever we want to make a half-assed point. It's like the word "know"... You probably shouldn't use it too often.

Third, terrorist groups do not have official addresses. They do not have expensive custom stationary. They do not have hotlines. 

Now, back to torture! How do we define what IS and what IS NOT torture? People have been trying to make distinctions all over this issue, and none of them seem very good. Some say torture is only something that inflicts harm and could potentially end your life. But we all know people can and have died from water-boarding, so that point is complete crap. Some say torture is anything that scares you or mentally, physically or emotionally scars you. In that case we're back to considering everything to be torture and no one is innocent anymore. So that argument is crap too. In order to call something torture we need to be able to logically identify it from what we know is not torture. Some people are probably saying that we don't need to make a clear cut distinction, that we know it when we see it, or some crap like that. Why would you not want a clear cut distinction? We require logical distinctions in all other areas we deem important. Why would you not want this to be a logical discussion? Perhaps you believe a logical distinction cannot be made, in which case you're dead fucking wrong. I've found one, and it's a pretty good one so far. If you think you can find a crack in its armor, please let me know. I enjoy a little healthy debate and I'd like to know where I've gone wrong. Perhaps I saw the logical distinction because I've been in the Army, been overseas, seen war and seen suffering. Perhaps that sort of "dip into Hell itself" is what is required to rule on such matters? Who knows, but here it is...

If you are willing to try it out in order to better decide whether or not something is torture, then it's not torture. No one ever volunteered to have bamboo chutes jammed under their finger nails. No one ever volunteered to have their legs broken with canes and then twisted on wires. (Medieval Torture Act) No one ever volunteered to have their thighs wrapped in tourniquets and then watch as animals devoured their lower halves. (Torture Method in Philippines) But would you volunteer to be water-boarded to see how it is? Assuming you have no major health concerns and you're not a complete pussy, sure you would. People have volunteered to try it, namely Christopher Hitchens. (I'm sincerely hoping he fully recovers from his cancer) So is water-boarding torture? Not in any official sense. Sure, you might try it out and say it's torture. But that doesn't mean shit to me. We're looking for an objective definition of torture, not some subjective circumstantial bullshit. I come home from a long day of work and say it was torture, and in many ways I was being sincere. But is it torture? Not at all.

Now for the main course... Regardless of whether or not water-boarding is torture, should the US sponsor torture when dealing with it's own prisoners of war? For this I have a two part answer. Why? Because anyone who's been in real combat would know that there's two sides to this coin. I'll explain...

We can all agree that I could come up with some hypothetical situation in which torture can be justified, with the exception of the complete pacifist pussies who never agree to anything violent in a desperate and futile attempt to seem more civilized than the rest of us. So in that situation is the use of torture justified? Sure it was. But whenever you hear someone make one of these hypotheticals you begin to notice two things in common with them all. All of them are extreme and all of them have the torture occurring on some unofficial basis. That's the key to the two part answer. Torture can be justified in extreme situations, but never on any official level. Especially for a nation like the United States which exists in support of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. As a squad leader in combat, I could justify the use of torture to obtain information from a POW in an extreme situation, but it wouldn't be on any official level. I'd be performing this act on my own, with volunteers and without the written or expressed consent of my commanders or any official policy. This isn't the US performing this act, it's me. I've spoken out against the use of torture on official level many many times in the past, even while I was still in the Army. But one on one, it can be justified so long as the circumstances are extreme and dire.

Some people like to say that torture is unreliable, and that the prisoner will tell you anything to get you to stop, even going so far as to tell you lies. Sure, they will do that. But only if they don't know anything. We all know that witness testimony in court is extremely unreliable, but we still use it. Why? Because it serves it's purpose in rare moments. There's actually an art to torture, believe it or not. You never tell the prisoner everything you know about a given subject. If you know the enemy is attacking one of your many bases on Saturday, you do not tell him you know it's on Saturday. You just tell him you know they're planning a huge attack and you want to know when and where. Then if he tells you it's at base Charlie on Monday, you know he's lying to you. Also, you have to know who you're torturing. If he doesn't have any useful information you'll know this fairly late. You'll catch him lying to you late in the game to make you stop hurting him. But if he does know something you'll catch him lying to you very early in the game to prevent the torture from happening all together, mainly because he fears he might tell you the truth if he allows it to begin. Sometimes people say the prisoner will refrain from telling you anything true because he knows you'll simply kill him as soon as he's no longer necessary. In some cases, probably most cases today, this is true. But there was a time when this was not the case. If I were captured by Nazis in WWII and tortured for information, depending on the gravity of the information, I would be willing to believe they are most likely going to keep me alive, and probably even begin treating me relatively nicely. If the torture were occurring on an unofficial level, such as the way I explained above where it could be reasonably justified, then the prisoner should know that when it's over he will be killed. So how do you get him to talk? You have to make death preferable to life. You'll have to make him want to die, which sounds awful, but it's the reality of the situation. And we all know reality is not required to be comforting to you or anyone else.

Have I ever tortured anyone? Not unless you consider farting in my hand and holding it over my friend's nose to be torture. (For the record, no he did not wish for death afterwards) So how do I know these things? Psychology is different on the battlefield than it is in Hollywood.


Joe Fogey said...

The Oxford English Dictionary describes torture as " 1. The infliction of severe bodily pain, as punishment or a means of persuasion; spec. judicial torture, inflicted by a judicial or quasi-judicial authority, for the purpose of forcing an accused or suspected person to confess, or an unwilling witness to give evidence or information;

I understand water-boarding to be extremely painful, and since it is used to gain confessions and information it is therefore torture according to that definition. Your argument that nobody voluntarily undergoes torture is irrelevant and ignores the power balance. Chris Hitchens could stop the treatment whenever he chose - the CIA's victims have no control over the course of their torture. A person might voluntarily agree to have a doctor operate with a scalpel - that does not mean that someone else is justified in inflicting the death of a thousand cuts.

SgtHaile said...

If we let a dictionary be the ultimate decider of a definition then atheism would mean something that it clearly does not. So why would we let a dictionary get away with an obscure illogical definition for torture, when we don't let it do the same for other words? Dictionaries do not define our words, logic defines our words and we put them into dictionaries. Where a word's definition seems illogical, we debate it. Your point that Hitchens tried it is illogical. You're saying that I'm wrong to think that people won't volunteer to be tortured, because Christopher Hitchens agreed to be water-boarded, and water-boarding is torture. Well that's just it. Water-boarding from a logical point of view is not torture. If it were my point would be invalid, but it's not so your point is invalid. It's like saying Swans are white, but then there's a black swan over there, so that's obviously not a swan because all swans are white.

I'm not trying to change the dictionary definition. The dictionary can continue to define it as people use the word. I'm talking about a logical or legal definition. Outside of the dictionaries and inside the debate forums, inside the court rooms, inside the UN chambers, etc... We need something objective to base our policies on.

Justin12 said...

Just wanted to let you know that I stopped by your blog after seeing your info on BookFace. Your writing is really good, nuanced, unflinching, and hilarious. (So did your friend die from the fart you put in his face?) Nice work. It's cool, because my view of soldiers being complete idiots who can barely spit out a complete sentence in print...that misconception is gone now. I feel like I should be thanking you for that for some reason. I've seen how lame military people can be, and so it's really cool that you're putting down some really thoughtful stuff here.

SgtHaile said...

I won't lie, most military personnel are extremely dumb. It's mostly because some are extremely undereducated and some are extremely conservative. However, in the combat occupations, like infantry, you find a lot of liberal intellectuals. People who could have done anything in the military, but chose to fight.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on the Foxhole Atheist Blog do not necessarily represent those of Atheism or all Atheists, seeing as how Atheism has no tenets, dogma or doctrines. So Suck it!