Plumb Lines

April 17, 2009

Torture and “Torture”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michael E. van Landingham @ 8:13 am

Ordinary Gentleman and friend of Plumb Lines E.D. Kain has a good summary of blog reaction to the memoranda approving torture. I relished his reaction to Red State’s Jeff Emmanuel’s comments:

Co-opting the word “torture” to include methods far less offensive than the majority of interrogation techniques I underwent in military SERE training isn’t a victory for moralists and humanitarians in any form; rather, it’s an Orwellian perversion of a word that once had meaning by those who have spent the last eight years on constant lookout for some greviance to hold against a president whose mere existence they resented.

The sad fact is, by co-opting the word “torture” and using it to describe activities going on at Gitmo, Bagram, and elsewhere, these faux-humanitarians have left us with no word to use to describe those activities which used to be classified as torture, like beheading captives on video, hanging people from meat hooks, drilling out eyeballs, using electric current to cause severe pain and physical damage, and cutting off limbs.

Damn co-opters!  First you co-opt the word “marriage” and now the word “torture!”  By the way, is “beheading captives on video” really considered torture?  I thought that was murder…

It’s interesting that Jeff thinks the only forms of torture that ought to be called that are the sort that essentially just almost instantly kill the victims.  Been watching too many Saw movies there Jeff?

What Emmanuel basically said amounts to a boasting contest of “my torture was worse than your torture.” In the sentence he claims he went through the real “military interrogation techniques” at SERE, and implies that these terrorists are whiners for not being able to take it like a man. Emmanuel’s statement is analogous to a fraternity brother telling pledges that they have no idea what hazing is, because it was a lot worse back when he was a frosh.

SERE creates an overwhelming sense of fear. It wasn’t designed only to help men withstand interrogations. It was designed to help them withstand torture. The only difference is that its participants know it is temporary. Want to know how some other SERE survivors feel about the program? Profligate drinker, smoker, and atheist Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding for about five seconds and called it torture. There’s even a video. Recently another “graduate” of SERE training called for the program to be shut down. Emmanuel’s attitude illustrates why the author thinks this: if you survive torture, you’re less likely to think it was “that bad.”

All of this is pointless, though, since the Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. I believe “torture” falls into that category, since it is inherently a punishment for refusing to give information. Perhaps the torture occurred outside the United States, but this should still be a guiding principle. Though Emmanuel  probably thinks that this prohibition only applies to Brazen Bulls and projectio in profluentem, since the pillory doesn’t leave marks.

Emmanuel’s position is the truly Orwellian one as it seeks to parse torture out to allow it to be considered legal and even moral. What happened on America’s watch wasn’t just “torture,” it was torture.

-Michael E. van Landingham



  1. Someone should organize voluntary waterboarding events for the public. Like blood drives.

    Comment by Abraham Adams — April 17, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  2. See, that was a much better analysis of Emmanuel’s comments than mine. Sometimes I can only muster snark, I admit, and then hope someone more patient than myself can come along with the in-depth stuff…


    Comment by E.D. Kain — April 17, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  3. That the torturing took place outside the US isn’t the only problem with that constitutional argument. It is such a thorny legal question because it’s far from clear that such constitutional protections (1) apply to foreigners (2) captured while waging war against the US. If all you really mean to say is that it should be a “guiding principle,” I agree with you, but I did think these other complicating factors were worth mentioning.

    Comment by Matt Drecun — April 17, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  4. Oh I know about jurisdiction, etc. I believe it’s settled that the Constitution applies to foreigners within our borders, but I am not sure if Guantanamo counts as part of the US or not. The European “black sites” are likely not subject to the Constitution. I agree that it has nothing to do with torture and the law per se, except as to how we create our policies. It is in that sense I meant “guiding principle.” As in, It’d be nice if we listened to our own advice.


    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — April 17, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  5. It’s a point worth mentioning that there are some things you wouldn’t do to a six-year-old that you can do to an adult because they experience it differently both physically and psychologically. Similarly there are things portly urban journalists can’t handle that trained warriors (often steeled by religious or ideological ecstasy) can. I abominate these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as much as the next guy,so we are in substantive agreement on the question of policy, but I think we should acknowledge that, up to a point, torture is indeed relative. Even Ann Coulter wouldn’t waterboard a ‘usurping’ federal judge until years in the forced-labor camp had hardened him.

    Comment by Keith Staples — April 17, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  6. Yes. I realized after I mentioned the Hitchens experience that his appraisal of the technique is perhaps not the same as doing it to a hardened soldier, or someone who expected torture. But his trial represents what it would be to the everyman. It’s not just a dunk in water like Cheney called it, but a terrifying traumatic event. So what if men can resist torture or that it is relative? It’s still torture. Especially waterboarding, something that has been classified as torture for some time.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — April 17, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  7. I certainly agree that there exist experiences which are justly called torture and are justly viewed as wrong no matter who experiences them, even if the person doesn’t ‘crack’ under it. But there is a fuzzy border (think of what cops sometimes do) where whether something should be called ‘roughing up’ or ‘torture’ depends on the constitution of the person you’re doing it to. We’re certainly not dealing with experiences along that border here.

    Comment by Keith Staples — April 17, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  8. Torture is wrong.

    If you wouldn’t do it to your kid or your grandmother, what makes it okay to do to someone else?

    Because they’re a prisoner? Because they’re under arrest?

    It is simple. Any debate is fatuous and beyond members of a democratic state.

    Comment by delphinias — April 17, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  9. “If you wouldn’t do it to your kid or your grandmother, what makes it okay to do to someone else?

    Because they’re a prisoner? Because they’re under arrest?”

    I believe “it” has an uncertain antecedent here. There are many things I wouldn’t do to the weak that I would do to the strong. Is this not pure commonsense? That waterboarding is not one of these things should not obscure the simple and limited point I was making. But I am glad someone finally highlighted the fatuity of debate within a democratic state.

    Comment by Keith Staples — April 20, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  10. Even if waterboarding isn’t torture (which, in my view and the view of every person arguing in good faith, it certainly is), surely we do not want to construct a society where some agents try to do as much as they can to harm someone without torturing him under the benevolent gaze of the Department of Justice?

    Comment by David Schaengold — April 20, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  11. […] have been encouraged to see a strong chorus including  John Schwenkler, E.D. Kain, David, MEvL, and now First Things express the truth that torture is wrong. One thing that we have to avoid is […]

    Pingback by Torture and the Lies We Tell « Plumb Lines — April 28, 2009 @ 1:06 am

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