Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Morality of Torture (and a Hint at Definition)

My last post addressed why we do not need to torture, even when it might be convenient. Abu Zubayda was waterboarded. This raises, once again, the question of whether waterboarding is torture and, even if it is, what is wrong with torturing a known terrorist for information that may save thousands of innocent lives.

People who defend waterboarding argue that it is not really torture, or a very mild form of torture, because (1) it is not painful and (2) the panic involved lasts only seconds. Another common argument is that people have voluntarily subjected themselves to waterboarding, and surely they would not voluntarily subject themselves to, say, putting hot needles under their fingernails. Bart de Palma adds that waterboarding is much less painful than the wounds that soldiers (and civilians) routinely receive in war. He defines torture only as the "intentional infliction of severe pain," which waterboarding does not entail. But he also condemns sexual abuse even when it is not specifically painful.

Opponents of waterboarding reply that extreme fear can be as bad as pain, and that there is a basic, qualitative difference between being waterboarded by force and being waterboarded with consent. (The same issue of consent applies to people who dismissed the sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib as no worse than fraternity hazing). I would add another thought. Electric shock was for a long time a popular form of torture because is did not leave any scars. It was also a short-lived pain, that could be immediately turned off with the flip of a switch. One of my high school science teachers knew men in Mexican border towns who had macho contests, holding onto electrodes to see how much voltage they could withstand. So there were people who voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shock as well.

Even if waterboarding is torture, what is wrong with the torture of a known terrorist? The best explanation I have seen of what makes torture such a moral outrage, also contains hints as to how torture might be defined:

[I]t's the violation of the integrity of the person by depriving them of all their power over themselves, and . . . somehow erasing the integrity of their 'self'. Prison doesn't do that; even Joe Arpaio - who keeps his prisoners in tents, offers them no recreation and dresses them in pink - does not violate their integrity in the ways that I'm describing - they still make choices, have some responsibility as to their behavior. Bluntly, I'd rater shoot someone than torture them harmlessly. I believe it's more moral; I'm violating their 'person-ness' less through an act of outright violence than through one that seeks to break their ownership of themselves in the ways that torture does.

That is the best explanation I have heard of what makes torture so deeply and viscerally wrong, it "seeks to break . . . ownership of [self]." And if this defines what is so wrong about torture, it also gives a rough measure of whether an act fits within the broad rubric of torture -- does it violate "ownership of self." Thus we can understand why the worst pain a soldier wounded in combat experiences is still not as bad as equivalent pain inflicted on a helpless prisoner -- war wounds do not intrude on "ownership of self." We can understand why sexual abuse, even when not painful, is so vile -- sexual abuse is a direct assault on "ownership of self." We can understand the importance of consent -- to do even the most painful act voluntarily and with consent is an expression, not a violation, of "ownership of self." People who volunteer to have themselves waterboarded, men who test their machismo by seeing how much voltage they can stand, fraternity pledges who submit to abusive (even sexually abusive) hazing are testing the limits of their "ownership of self," not having it forcibly stripped from them.

So, does waterboarding violate "ownership of self" the same way that physical torture or sexual abuse do? The best account I have seen of waterboarding is in this post. It is impressive in both its objective description of the mechanics of waterboarding and is subjective account of what waterboarding inflicts. The author is an ultra-marathon runner and an experienced diver and swimmer who once held his breath for over four minutes and another time tested himself by swimming laps without breathing until he passed out.

To waterboard, ge placed his head below his chest so water in the upper respiratory tract would not descend into the lungs and actually drown him. He began by simply pouring water over his face. Thanks to his experience as a swimmer and diver, he was able to breath air through his nose or mouth (depending on which was not full of water) and expel the water from his nose, throat and sinuses by forefully exhaling. He then escalated by blocking his mouth with a rag, which allowed him to breath only through his nose. Although more difficult, he could still make shallow breaths of air and expel the water. His conclusion (although he did not state it in quite those terms) was that a well-conditioned athlete could be trained to resist either technique. Then he covered his nose with saran wrap and waterboarded through a hole over his mouth.
The water fills the hole in the saran wrap so that there is either water or vaccum in your mouth. The water pours into your sinuses and throat. You struggle to expel water periodically by building enough pressure in your lungs. With the saran wrap though each time I expelled water, I was able to draw in less air. Finally the lungs can no longer expel water and you begin to draw it up into your respiratory tract.

It seems that there is a point that is hardwired in us. When we draw water into our respiratory tract to this point we are no longer in control. All hell breaks loose. Instinct tells us we are dying. I have never been more panicked in my whole life. Once your lungs are empty and collapsed and they start to draw fluid it is simply all over. You [b]know[b] you are dead and it's too late. Involuntary and total panic.

There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It would be like telling you not to
blink while I stuck a hot needle in your eye. At the time my lungs emptied and I began to draw water, I would have sold my children to escape. There was no choice, or chance, and willpower was not involved.
. . . . .

So, is it torture?

I'll put it this way. If I had the choice of being waterboarded by a third party or having my fingers smashed one at a time by a sledgehammer, I'd take the fingers, no question.
Sufficiently intense fear, in other words, is just as bad as any pain, and can go just as far in breaking "ownership of self." ("I would have sold my children to escape.") Broadly defining torture as acts that "seek to break ownership of self," waterboarding clearly qualifies.

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