Al Qaeda and Torture


I see I'm getting razzed a little for not linking to the Pentagon's strange and sudden decision to release graphic drawings of al Qaeda torture techniques. I don't think I have a record of believing anything other than that al Qaeda - and the Shia death squads in Iraq - are monsters. I mean: I linked to the Nick Berg video, for example, and have never, ever shied from exposing and reviling the evil of the enemy. As for the torture images: alas, we know it all already. We see the tortured bodies every day in Iraq. And we also know - and those of us who have campaigned against the use of torture by the U.S. have never for a second disputed - that what these monsters do is indeed in most cases far, far worse than anything the U.S. has done to prisoners under Bush. The unhinged sadism of these Jihadists is hard to fathom, but impossible to deny.

Two points, then, I guess. The first is to reiterate the plain legal and treaty definition of torture: the infliction of "severe mental or physical pain or suffering" in order to extract information. The key concept for me is coercion, the abuse of prisoners to the extent that they have no effective choice but to tell their torturers what the torturers want hear. This can be done in many, many ways, and human beings, over the centuries, have devised many sophisticated techniques to achieve the same end. What al Qaeda and Saddam did was an extreme form of sadistic torture, the kind that psychopaths enjoy and inflict. But that does not make, say, freezing someone to near-death, reviving him, re-freezing him again any less torture. Yes, we did that, carefully monitored by Rumsfeld. It does not make the Khmer Rouge waterboarding technique any less torture. It does not make contorting a prisoner into an excruciating stress position and then smashing his head against the wall any less torture. We should not forget that there have been more than a hundred deaths in U.S.-run torture chambers under George W. Bush either.

So I really don't get the point. Unless it is the following: If we are not as evil as al Qaeda, we are not torturing. This is logically and legally and morally a complete non-sequitur. And it is truly mind-boggling to believe that the arbiters of our moral compass are now the men who murdered 3000 innocents on 9/11. I don't know about you, but that's not the standard against which I believe America should judge herself. Or ever, ever has.

(Picture: the after-effects of a torture session conducted by U.S. soldiers under the command of president George W. Bush in Abu Ghraib prison.)