Alex Massie

Torture and Porn: Stuff You Know When You See It

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Not so long ago the American conservative movement denied that waterboarding and the other "enhanced interrogation techniques" used upon prisoners were anything remotely akin to torture. That line has shifted somewhat in recent days. Now it's "Well, maybe you think it is torture but - look! - it works!"

Does this constitute progress or not?

My own view is that torture is one of those things you recognise when you see it. But because we associate it with the rack and with thumbscrews and the oubliette, too many people assume that this is the only form of punishment that constitutes torture. Not so.

There's an obvious and easy question to ask: if these methodsĀ  - waterboarding, sleep deprivation, beating, being chained to the ceiling - were being used to extract information from a British or American soldier, would you consider them torture? Or, to take this a step further, suppose your brother or sister or mother or father or husband or wife or son or daughter were imprisoned in Iran or North Korea or Syria or Egypt and treated in this fashion, would you consider them to have been tortured or merely subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques?

I rather suspect most of you would say that, yes, this constitutes torture. I know I would. There's an awful lot of parsing going on about what constitutes torture and most of it is bogus and an attempt to cover up the extremely unpalatable, if obvious, truth which is that these methods are a disgrace.

The wisdom of prosecuting those responsible for this fiasco is a different matter entirely, but recognising that this has been an appalling, grievously damaging episode is not.

And yet our old friends at National Review - in these instances Mark Hemingway and Cliff May - remain determined to make the case that the United States indulged in a more civilised form of waterboarding than, say, the Japanese during World War Two or the Khmer Rouge. When that's the bar you set for yourself you are, I fear, implicitly conceding defeat. Indeed, boasting about the presence of doctors and psychologists at waterboarding sessions actually bolsters the argument that this is torture, since if it weren't these "professionals" wouldn't need to be there at all. By their own words may they be damned.

Among the many sensible takes on this and for proof that not all conservatives have lost their minds I recommend these posts by Peter Suderman, John Schwenkler and Conor Friedersdorf.

PS: The huffing and puffing that this none of this can be torture since some US troops experience some of these methods at SERE school - albeit with the certain knowledge and vital caveat that they won't be killed - is, naturally, weapons-grade tripe. SERE is designed to prepare troops for the possibility of being tortured. If you then use the methods the North Koreans might use to torture American pilots against the prisoners you hold yourself you are, quite clearly, reducing yourself to the North Korean level. That is to say, you are torturing people. In a real, but in recent years sadly optimistic sense, that is Un-American.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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