The Second Version

04/07/08

Defining Torture: Useful?

Mike cites approvingly another blogger stating thus:
Torture is any experience so horrible that no-one would consider trying it out simply for the purpose of writing a Vanity Fair article about what it’s like.
I have read Hitchens' piece on waterboarding, and it does not seem like empty sensationalism to me. Rather, it's in my opinion remarkable that a pundit would go and test it on his own skin what is no doubt an unpleasant (to say the least) experience.

It's very hard to give and exact definition of what is torture - in fact, there are no discrete steps but a continuum from "mild discomfort" to "utterly unbearable". There is also an important subjective component: resistance to pain can be quite different from person to person, as it's strength of character. Some people (like the jihadis) have a strong determination to sustain them, and there's people - soldiers, but also guerrillas and terrorists - who have trained to resist torture. The same experience can be a nasty but survivable ordeal for some, but an existence-wrecking one for others.

Saying that waterboarding is not torture seems to me an easy opt-out to avoid what is the real question: what acts and deeds are allowed in order to extract important information from captured irregular combatants? I think that torture is morally justified in these cases - but I'm not sure it should be made explicitely legal.

The point being that networked irregular combatants are not like regular armies: in the latter case, the information that could be obtained with torture of captured prisoner is likely not to be of great importance and is probably not enough to win. In the case of networked enemy organizations, instead, information is of vital importance to trace the network and disrupt its activities.

Or maybe, at an even more basic level, a problem we have to face is that many people want victory, but do not want their (metaphorical) hands to get dirty. Victory and moral purity, however, are I won't say mutually exclusive, but at least conflicting priorities.

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