I was talking last night with a friend and trying to figure out why many of us are talking past each other on the question of torture. One thought I have is that many people confuse sadism with torture. A superfluity of comic books and bad horror movies leads many people to think of torture as something that must involve elaborate sadism, like pulling out fingernails or putting someone on a rack or drilling in their skull. Some torture is indeed like that - and it is now going on all over Iraq, perpetrated by sectarian death squads. But sadism can exist without torture. Some of the pictures in Abu Ghraib were, it seems to me, examples of sadism, abuse and humiliation - not torture. And torture can exist without sadism.
Torture is indeed aptly described by the term "coercive interrogation." That, of course, is an oxymoron. A genuine interrogation requires consent and interaction between two people; coercion is the act of one person forcing his will on another. For me, and in the law, torture is the use of force to compel an answer to a question. The compulsion can be physical or pscyhological. While it must be severe to qualify as torture, it need not entail the sadism I mention above. Take the simple example of "sleep deprivation," a term that many people simply do not believe is torture. And it doesn't sound the faintest bit sadistic. We've all gone without sleep. But to be forced to go without sleep for weeks on end is to use the body's physical needs to compel the soul and the psyche to surrender information. That is torture. And Rumsfeld personally ordered it. Menachem Begin was subjected to sleep deprivation as a torture technique in the Soviet Gulag. He describes a torture victim who is
"wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget ... Anyone who has experienced the desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable it with it."
Maybe this helps bridge some of the gap in understanding between those of us who oppose torture and those who think we are being hyperbolic hysterics. The issue is not sadism. It is compulsion.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.