Saturday, August 22, 2009


I was reminded of this old movie by a headline I saw in the news yesterday: "Report: CIA conducted mock executions of detainees"

Now - is this really torture? There are some things which I believe are torture (waterboarding obviously being the most commonly discussed; but stress positions; lack of sleep, food, etc. are also pretty commonly placed in that category), and there are some things that are not, and then there's a large grey area. The problem as I see it is that discussions about that grey area need to be separated into two different categories:

A) When is torture valid?

B) What constitutes torture?

The answer to A is a simple ethics question, and I don't know if it can ever actually be answered for anyone except for the individual involved. Some might say "never," but others might have a difference of opinion. As Michael Levin has pointed out, the moral arguments for or against torture are (because they are moral arguments) necessarily relativistic. To paraphrase: we've established that torture can be justified, now we're just haggling over price.

Personally, I think torture is wrong not because of any inherent concerns for the victim, but for the torturer. We don't torture because we're Americans. Full Stop. However, each answer to this is unique to the individual, and arguing about it is similar to arguing about the existence of God - in the end it comes down to your own personal beliefs. However, the slope of "when is it justified" needs to be met consistently and heartily with "never!"

Question B, however, is more empirical, even if it's still not set in stone. If we can establish that torture is illegal in the United States, then we simply have to determine what is torture and what isn't. I'm not usually a big fan of magic lists, but it seems to me that sometimes we need stricter definitions of acceptable and unacceptable. This gets me to my next point, we need these definitions because our own personal definitions are so fungible.

Take mock executions, for example. The AP article presents mock executions as yet another in a long list of torture tactics labeled as "harsh interrogation measures." But is it? Yes, it is a bit shocking, but no physical harm comes to the subject (I am ignoring the combination of other techniques here - I only want to talk about mock executions). And just twenty years ago, mock executions were seen in a comedy to obtain information from a terrorist.

I remember no outcry about this particular scene, no ACLU or Amnesty International issues with the mock execution so vividly portrayed on the screen. In fact, all I remember is laughter when the reveal occurs and the helicopter is shown to not even be off the ground.

So, in twenty years our definition of a single act has been changed from comedy to torture. Obviously, we need to change with the times, and our definitions will need to change as well. Our morals should not.

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