Thinking About Torture (II)

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Since I quoted extensively from Mark Bowden's 2003 "Dark Art of Interrogation" essay in my last post, I should note that even as the essay suggested a distinction between coercion/torture-lite and torture proper, it was also quite explicit about how blurry the line between the two categories really is, and how easily coercion, if legally sanctioned, can shade into something darker:

It may be clear that coercion is sometimes the right choice, but how does one allow it yet still control it? Sadism is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Every army has its share of soldiers who delight in kicking and beating bound captives. Men in authority tend to abuse it--not all men, but many. As a mass, they should be assumed to lean toward abuse.

... And how does one define "coercion," as opposed to "torture"? If making a man sit in a tiny chair that forces him to hang painfully by his bound hands when he slides forward is okay, then what about applying a little pressure to the base of his neck to aggravate that pain? When does shaking or pushing a prisoner, which can become violent enough to kill or seriously injure a man, cross the line from coercion to torture?

... when the ban is lifted, there is no restraining lazy, incompetent, or sadistic interrogators. As long as it remains illegal to torture, the interrogator who employs coercion must accept the risk. He must be prepared to stand up in court, if necessary, and defend his actions.

I've cherry-picked these quotes; do read the whole thing. As I said, I'm not entirely sure that I agree with Bowden on the last point - if we are going to say that some sort of physical coercion has to be allowed the most extreme circumstances, then part of me thinks that the allowance has to be built into the law in some sense, rather than being "handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy," as Bowden puts it elsewhere in the piece. But certainly his description of the slippery slope that follows from offering a broad "yes" to torture-lite looks awfully prescient today.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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