It's odd, isn't it, that we use this word to describe abuse and torture of prisoners. The reason it's odd is that I'm not sure any animals torture. Yes, they can kill and maim and inflict dreadful suffering in the process of killing, eating or fighting. But the act of intentionally exploiting suffering, of lingering over some other being's pain - using it as a means to an end - is not an animal instinct, unless I'm mistaken.
And so torture is in fact extremely human; it represents in many ways humankind's unique capacity for cruelty.
It is the relationship between torturer and tortured that evokes the term "inhuman". Because it robs the victim of human dignity - and removes the torturer from the civil community of humankind. So this very human act of inhumanity is why torture, like rape, has, until recently, been so anathematized in the civilized West. This dehumanization can take many forms, and it isn't only in the act of torture. It is also implicit in the conditions and circumstances of the abuse. To take a simple example, Bush and Cheney authorized the stripping of prisoners of their clothes in order to break them down psychologically. Not many of us have been stripped like that, en masse, or separately, herded like animals from one cage to another, mocked, beaten, sexually abused and made more vulnerable, as naked humans are, to the extremes of heat and cold. You can't, after all, strip an animal of clothes and thereby deny it of dignity or add to its suffering. Shelter, maybe, of domesticated animals, but not clothes, that inherently human artefact.
For good measure, Bush and Cheney also robbed these suspects - I repeat suspects - of light by hooding or imprisoning them in windowless cells from which many were told they would never escape. They deprived them of sound - which is what bombarding human beings with insanely loud noise constantly does. When there's nothing but noise, there's no sound. They shackled them in positions that were both excruciating in pain but also means to deny them the simplest acts of basic autonomy, like wiping their asses when they shit. This was about destroying people at their core - over a period of time, as a means to "break" them as humans. Have you ever been shackled naked in such a fashion that you have to piss and shit on yourself repeatedly without being able to clean? Can you imagine how that feels?
Mr. Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell. Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest, and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors...
No animal does this to other animals. Only humans do this to humans (and, of course, animals). Until you are turned into this:
"During questioning, [Padilla] often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body," Mr. Patel said. "The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel."
That's why I find the focus on waterboarding to be off-base. Yes, it is torture, even if the New York Times cannot bring itself to say so. It is also a form of rape - using drowning rather than sexual penetration as the chosen form of mastery. But the focus on a legal specificity - we can count the number of times these victims were near-drowned and suffocated! - misses, I think, the real abuse. Here is what one FBI agent said he saw at Guantanamo (and God knows what went on there after the FBI walked out of the program):
If you believe that America cannot survive without doing this to human beings, then what exactly is the America you believe in?