What Torture Is


The legal definition is clear enough: the infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering to extract information. But the notion of "severe" has obviously been interpreted to mean different things, to carve out a zone where prisoners can be subjected to pain and suffering to elicit information that is not somehow torture. You've heard all the euphemisms by now: "enhanced interrogation"; "coercive interrogation"; "aggressive questioning"; "harsh interrogation." Not only have leading politicians and torture apologists used these terms but the mainstream media have adopted them as well, as if writing news stories in which the United States is described as practicing torture is so unimaginable a concept that it requires obfuscating.

To my mind, the biggest misconception has been the conflation of torture with sadism as it is understood in comic books or lurid spy novels. Throughout human history, some of the most disgusting torture has taken these forms: pulling out fingernails, drilling into skulls, electrocution, etc. But most human torture is less dramatic than this, even banal. Sleep deprivation, for example, can easily be dismissed as non-torture by those, like Rudy Giuliani, who have not taken the time to learn what it actually is.

In fact, many victims of torture describe it as among the worst. Menachem Begin, a terrorist and no softy, experienced it under Stalin and believed that "not even hunger or thirst are comparable" with the desire to sleep after a certain amount of time. The same can be said for being forced to stand for 48 hours. In his fascinating interview with Brian Ross, former CIA torturer Brian Kiriakou decribes how Abu Zubayhdah responded to these torture techniques:

JOHN: I recall the handful of times it was used on people it was usually 40 hours plus.  They just simply couldn't take it anymore.

That last phrase seems to me to be the critical one:

They just simply couldn't take it anymore.

This is the central criterion of torture. It takes sleep deprivation 40 hours to get there; and it takes water-boarding ten seconds. But the destination is the same: the surrender of will to another because of intolerable pain or suffering. That's why a mock execution is also regarded as torture under the law - because it takes a person to the edge of psychological breakdown.

Or look at it this way. If a prisoner were subjected to electric shocks to get him to cooperate, how long would the process take? A matter of seconds, perhaps a minute. How long does it take when waterboarding someone? According to Kiriakou, who was there:

He was able to withstand the water boarding for quite some time. And by that I mean probably 30, 35 seconds -

So the mental and physical pain or suffering was so severe that it was an achievement for a prisoner to endure it for more than 30 seconds. Kiriakou says he lasted 5 seconds in a context where he knew he was safe.

This is not just torture; it is among the most severe forms of torture that we know. It is completely indistinguishable from non-fatally electrocuting someone. That it doesn't leave physical marks is immaterial. That argument is one the Nazis used in defending the use of sleep deprivation and hypothermia. What matters is the severity of the suffering.

I wish these were not the facts. But they are. We now have a direct witness to the torture - and one who inflicted it - describing it as torture; we have all the legal precedents that do not begin to question whether waterboarding is torture; we know the president directly authorized it; we know the epidemic of torture that ensued. These are crimes, committed by the executive branch in full awareness of the law and with premeditation. They place the United States in violation of the Geneva Conventions. And the president bears the final responsibility.

I hate to ask the inevitable question: Who will now hold him criminally responsible?