Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines torture as the following:
1.) the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something
When we think of torture, we tend to think along the lines of the first definition: everything from the rack and other medieval devices to breaking fingers to (perhaps) waterboarding.
What about sensory, sleep, and food deprivation? Sensory overload? Confinement in small spaces? These don’t necessarily cause any physical pain, but many of us insist that they are torture and they do fall under its second definition.
What about imprisonment? It is an effective deterrent precisely because it is so undesirable, at least for extended periods of time. For many prisoners, imprisonment would meet the second definition of torture: a very unpleasant experience that causes mental suffering. And yet virtually no one describes it as such.
Note also that the dictionary’s definitions say nothing about how long the experience has to last before it is considered torture.
But perhaps the dictionary definition misses the point. Let’s consider the Geneva Convention:
“For the purposes of this Convention, 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.”
So mental suffering does indeed count according to international law. Fortunately, suffering related to “lawful sanctions” doesn’t count, so that settles the issue!
Well, not really.
Forget about these definitions of torture. The real question is what separates acceptable harmful actions from unacceptable harmful actions, as applied to criminals or suspected criminals. Whether the suffering comes from a “lawful” sanction or not is irrelevant.
Given the choice between 10 years of torture and 10 years of imprisonment, everyone would choose 10 years of imprisonment–and not just because torture entails imprisonment as well. In a 1:1 comparison, the undesirability of constant physical pain and the accompanying psychological trauma outweighs the undesirability of confinement. But what if the torture only went on for a month or less? What if it weren’t constant, but only for a minute per day? What if the torture only entailed exposure to the cold? If we change the parameters of torture, we can make it much more desirable than long periods of imprisonment.
This wouldn’t really matter if no one held the absolutist anti-torture position that even, say, a minute of waterboarding crosses some significant moral line and renders us uncivilized monsters. But people do hold that position. After all, debates over torture tend to focus on whether or not torture is appropriate at all, not on how much torture is appropriate. These same people also hold, like the rest of us, that imprisonment is an appropriate punishment and/or means of keeping our society safe. Given that we would prefer brief torture to extended imprisonment, it seems to me that accepting the latter and forbidding the former on the grounds that it is monstrous makes the least sense. Otherwise, on what do we base the notion that torture is so uniquely bad and worse than imprisonment?
In practice, of course, torture is not used for a minute at a time as a substitute for imprisonment. It is used as the torturers see fit in addition to imprisonment, though that imprisonment is not necessarily permanent. But this is irrelevant to the point that we are morally inconsistent and imprecise in our definitions, which has allowed some of us to pretend that “enhanced interrogation” is something else entirely and others to pretend that using the force of government to imprison people for years is so different from torture as to be uncomparable. We can talk all we want about the ability of torture to produce reliable information or about its necessity, but if we are comparing the evils of torture and imprisonment as actions, then the most important aspect to consider by far is their desirability to the people who have to endure them. Once we do that, we can’t hide behind words and definitions. We have to consider what we are actually doing to people.
I don’t write this to argue that we should torture, as that subject must take other details into account. I also don’t write this to argue that we must do away with imprisonment. I write this to point out what seems to me to be a case of hypocrisy based on a moral argument that is disconnected from reality. I find the idea that even a little torture crosses a moral line that extended imprisonment does not cross to be comparable to many of the “X is just wrong” arguments that I have dealt with on this blog. If we are to oppose torture, then we should do so for other reasons.