A Technicality Won't Excuse the Obama Administration for Torture

It doesn't matter if prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are being force-fed to elicit a confession or not—the law, and common sense, are clear.
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Is it torture to strap a man to a chair, shove a needlessly big feeding tube through his nostril, force liquid into his stomach, add constipation medicine such that he soils himself, and leave him there to stew in his own filth for a couple hours? What if you do that to the man twice a day over a period of many years?

An inmate at Guantanamo Bay says it's torture, and that he's suffered that treatment under the Bush and Obama Administrations. Weighing in on my article about that man, Andrew Sullivan writes that "the technique is painful and humiliating enough to be used as part of a torture program," but insists that it isn't torture in this case, because there's no indication that it "was designed to procure a confession or admission of some kind—and that’s key to defining it as torture." 

He is flat wrong.

On many occasions, Sullivan has cited the UN Convention Against Torture, which was signed by President Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and is thus the law in America.

It defines torture as follows (my emphasis):

For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Merriam-Webster defines torture as follows: "The infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure." As an email correspondent points out, "There is simply no question that torture encompasses abuses other than those intended to elicit confession or admission."

That is correct.

And according to the prisoner, he and others at the camp are force-fed in unduly intrusive and painful ways to punish them for their hunger strike and coerce them to stop it.

His allegation meets the torture threshold, if true.

If Sullivan believes that the technique described is used at Guantanamo Bay, and that it would cross the threshold of torture were it used to elicit a confession, then he should conclude, after reviewing the legal and common definitions of torture, that the Obama Administration is torturing prisoners at a military base in Cuba. 

Doing so would be consistent with the standard Sullivan himself used on May 2, 2013, when he characterized unduly severe force-feeding as barbaric torture, even in the absence of any indication that it was being done as part of an interrogation. 

People change their minds. But let's be honest. If Dick Cheney walked into a prison cell at Guantanamo Bay and crushed the testicles of an inmate, not to elicit information but because John Yoo said it might be okay and he wanted to test the limits of executive power, Sullivan would not hesitate to call that act torture.   

Why does he hesitate here? I have a theory.

President Obama is a very likable individual. He is handsome, eloquent, and charismatic. He seems to be a good husband and father. He exudes reasonableness in many of his speeches, and at his best, their substance is impressive. He has advanced important causes dear to me and to Sullivan, like gay equality. There is no reason to doubt that Obama believes his domestic agenda is salutary. There are also credible allegations that the U.S. government has tortured on his watch. I can see how this would be especially discomfiting to someone like Sullivan, who has written so eloquently in support of Obama and against torture. Sullivan's idea of a torturing president and his idea of Obama are at odds.

Perhaps an investigation would determine that the Guantanamo Bay inmate is lying. But if the facts in his lawsuit turn out to be accurate—and I don't think I'm wrong in thinking that Sullivan finds them to be plausible—let's not start contriving technicalities, so that we can pretend the Obama Administration is less depraved than we would tell ourselves if we acknowledged that it tortured for years. It would be nice to think that cinema-villain caricatures like Cheney are the only men capable of such things. If we guard only against torture in that guise, what we'll get is more torture, but wrapped in a much more pleasant package.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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