Yesterday, I wrote a pretty lengthy piece about torture, in response to a typically asshatted column by Glenn Greenwald (or, perhaps, ghost-written by “Rick Ellensberg,” “Ellison,” “Thomas Ellers,” or “Ryan,” or some new pseudonym) on torture and its role in the War on Terror. It prompted a lot of discussion — a lot of heat, but some light. For example, I said that US interrogators had “developed” the waterboarding technique, when I should have said “refined” — it’s actually an old method, but updated to greatly reduce the risk of physical harm.
But one of the points raised in the comments was by Wizbang Blue author Paul Hamilton, and I think it needs fully addressing:
Torture is wrong. Period. And when you start parsing the definition, you’re tacitly admitting that.
A seemingly-unassailable moral principle. But as they say, the devil is in the details.
The problem is that “wrong” has no real meaning in a legal sense. “Right” and “wrong” don’t mean a damned thing in a courtroom — and let’s face it, that’s where these sorts of disputes almost always end up. They are replaced with “legal” and “illegal.”
And those terms need absolute definitions. The law must be a black and white matter, a purely binary equation. It is simply unreasonable and untenable to say that “torture” is illegal without spelling out what “torture” is — and, more importantly, what it is not.
Otherwise, we tell our interrogators — government employees acting as agents for the American people — to “do what you need to get information from these people, but don’t torture them. But we won’t say whether what you do is torture until after you do it, and then it’ll be in a court room when you’re on trial for it.”
Torture is like “obscenity” — something everyone condemns, but no one really wants to define. (And for similar reasons.) No one wants to be a censor, no one wants to stifle the freedom of speech and expression, but hardly anyone wants to go into detail into just where the boundary of obscenity lies. Instead, we use vague platitudes such as “community standards” and “I know it when I see it,” and force those who flirt with that nebulous definition to perpetually walk through minefields.
If we expect our interrogators to carry out their duties while staying within the law, we owe them clear, precise guidelines — especially when the penalties for violating those laws is so severe. So yes, we do need to “parse” the precise definition if we’re going to be holding people to legal penalties — including lengthy terms in prison — to “interrogate and extract information, but not torture.”