On being against torture

I’m against the horror of therdiglob. All right-thinking people should be against therdiglob; civilized societies have long abandoned the practice. Therdiglob makes us look bad in the eyes of the world. If you’re not against therdiglob, someone may do it to you someday.


The above statement is meaningless, because “therdiglob” is undefined. It has the form of moral indignation, but it is not morally serious. Actually, it’s vacuous except as a way of conveying the speaker’s desire to sound high-minded and morally superior. As read, it is actually faintly ridiculous — indignation without substance, tone without content, pure posturing.

Everything depends on the extensional meaning of “therdiglob”. If “therdiglob” were defined as “flaying the subject alive”, it would be difficult to object to the above. On the other hand, if “therdiglob” were defined as “giving the subject cotton candy”, it would become utterly rather than faintly ridiculous.

Now consider this:

I’m against the horror of torture. All right-thinking people should be against torture; civilized societies have long abandoned the practice. Torture makes us look bad in the eyes of the world. If you’re not against torture, someone may do it to you someday.

The above statement suffers from the exact same kind of meaninglessness in the absence of a definition of “torture”. In the presence of a definition of torture, it will be be meaningful but could be anywhere from a serious assertion of principle to ridiculous posturing. Where the weight of this statement falls depends on the definition we attach to “torture”.

I think it is very important to have a clear, morally serious, and shared definition of the word “torture” for the same reason it is important to have a clear, morally serious, and shared understanding of the word “genocide”. There are some acts which civilized societies should put utterly beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. It is important that we not trivialize the terms that apply to such acts, otherwise we will actually make it more difficult to condemn and prevent them.

As an example: if we were to encompass within the term “genocide” the killing of rodent populations, we would make it more difficult to unequivocally condemn the killing of human populations. Retrospectively, the correct application of the word “genocide” to events like the Holocaust or the Rwandan massacres would lose moral heft. I do not think it would be going too far to say that trivializing the term “genocide” would be a compounding crime against the victims of real genocides.

The reason this elaborate analysis is required is that in the year 2010 we can no longer take for granted that persons claiming to be opposed to “torture” will have a morally serious definition of that term. It has been associated, by the ACLU among others, with practices including (a) desecration of the Koran, (b) playing loud pop music, and (c) humiliating deployment of female underwear. I say “associated” because the ACLU and others have carefully worded their denunciations so that they can claim to be labeling these things “detainee abuse” rather than “torture”, but have failed to distinguish in any principled or consequential way between “detainee abuse” and “torture”, commingling these terms in their propaganda. This ACLU statement is representative.

Trivializing the term “torture” has the same sort of costs and consequences that trivializing the term “genocide” would. It deprives us of the language in which to condemn acts which are truly atrocious and should be put beyond the pale. But it has a subtler effect as well. It forces us to substitute repellently legalistic definitions of “torture” for a folk understanding of the concept that may be more humane and inclusive.

To see how this operates, let us consider the term “genocide” again. If a fictional “human-rights” organization named the ULCA were to use the term “genocide” for the killing of a hundred people out of a total population of ten thousand of the fictional Nohopistani ethnic group, we would almost certainly dismiss it as hyperbolic. If the ULCA were to commingle the terms “mass murder” and “genocide” in the description, a reasonable person would accept the term “mass murder” but reject the term “genocide”.

If the ULCA and its allies were to continue commingling the terms “mass murder” and “genocide” in describing the killings, and were to ask all of us to condemn the killings as though they were genocide and to be considered a mini-Holocaust, then we would be forced into trying to define some sort of numerical or proportional threshold for “genocide”. More than 5000 people? Over 99% of the Nohopistanis? Over 51%? Even thinking in such terms is repugnant; but, worse, any threshold we come up with would become a political football and might even come to serve as a shield for the perpetrators of atrocities rather than a way to condemn them.

Those who trivialize the term and the category of “torture” put us in exactly the same position. Weak bleating that (for example) Koran desecration was only described as “detainee abuse” is unresponsive for exactly the same reason that use of the term “mass murder” was unhelpfully confusing in our fictional example. The effect of such semantic shell games is to make principled opposition to actual atrocities more difficult by depriving us of unambiguous language in which to express it.

Now I am going to recommend that the reader take time out to at least skim over George Orwell’s immortal 1946 essay Politics and the English Language in order to understand that this is not a new problem. As he says, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” and “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”.

Orwell, writing in opposition to the muscular totalitarianism of his day, failed to foresee what its spiritual heirs would do in ours. In 2010, to attempt to be clear and morally serious about the definition of “torture” is to immediately be accused of being pro-torture! This is an ingenious twist, one which puts the trivialization of the term outside the limits of discussion and masks the trivializers’ actual agenda behind a facade of high-mindedness.

(I note in passing that “torture” is not the only term that the politically-correct have boobytrapped in this way. Consider “racism”…)

But as reading Orwell reminds us, in order to reason effectively about the causes and prevention of atrocities we must first know what we are talking about. We must have clear definitions with consequences, and we must be ready to reject as empty and unhelpful posturing the speech of disputants who resist having clear definitions. We are not unburdened from this requirement by the fact that language is slippery and definitions commonly have difficult edge cases; in fact, that makes semantic discipline more necessary rather than less.

When I use the term “torture”, I intend it to apply to any application of force which intentionally causes irreversible physical or psychological harm to the subject in the course of coercing him (or her).

There are undeniable difficulties and ambiguities in this definition; there will be in any proposed definition. The proper questions to be asked are (a) whether the scope of this definition enables us to unequivocally condemn all the practices which are entailed in informal “folk” notions of torture; opposingly (b) whether it is overbroad and encompassing of practices which do not match those folk notions; and (c) whether the edge cases of the definition are so important as to render it useless in practice.

If we fail to pass test (a), we will violate the moral intuitions about torture that are expressed in ordinary language. If we fail to pass test (b). we will trivialize the term and make it more difficult to condemn actual atrocities. If we fail to pass (c) we will have erected a definition which is perhaps formally or emotionally satisfying but inapplicable to so many real situations that it is useless.

Before examining this definition in detail, let us note and explain a conspicuous absence: “pain” is nowhere mentioned. This may seem curious in view of the fact that the folk script for “torture” normally includes the victim screaming in agony. I explain this with the following scenario, which I will later employ in another important way:

Detainee A is frog-marched into a room with a surgical table in it and several personnel in scrubs. A gleaming tray of sharp instruments is visible. Interrogator X says: “Tell us what we want to know, or we will strap you to this table, anesthetize you, and put out your eyes.” Though no pain is promised, our moral intuition is that the degree of pain inflicted is relatively insignificant compared to the blinding, and that this is in fact a threat of torture whether pain were entailed or not.

Let us now examine each of the traits we have posited:

Intention and coercion: I think we are on very firm ground here. The script or frame that goes with the word “torture” in folk use is that someone (a torturer) is intentionally and painfully coercing someone else to achieve some objective, which is typically either (i) punishment, (ii) interrogation, or (iii) sadistic gratification. We may speak of “unintentional torture” but we recognize this as an exception which has to be qualified precisely because it is an exception.

Application of force: This seems almost trivially true, in that without the application of force the subject of torture may simply refuse to be tortured — flee, attack the torturer, or otherwise disrupt the process.

Physical or psychological harm: If neither harm is present, no torture. Most people have intuitions about physical harm which pose no real difficulties here. The issue (one of two serious ones with this definition of torture) is what constitutes “psychological harm”. The problem is that “psychological harm” is difficult to verify, and either claiming it has occurred or denying that it can occur may constitute a dishonest form of gamemanship by which disputants in borderline cases pursue agendas they cannot otherwise justify. I will return to this point after considering irreversibility.

Irreversibility: I think this is the most productive term in the definition, but it is also the source of the most serious difficulty. In considering the threat-of-blinding scenario above, our intuition is that the true threat is not pain but irreversible loss; in fact the offer of anesthesia seems almost mocking. The blinding threat would lose most of its force if eye clinics could install new eyes for you as easily as they could prescribe glasses. Similarly, the implicit threat that makes painful physical tortures really threatening is that you will never get over this; your joints will be cracked, your bones will be crushed, your flesh will be rent, you will be ugly and scarred and crippled and in residual pain for the rest of your shortened life.

I don’t think irreversible damage gives us any false positives. The difficulty is that many people have trouble with excluding reversible damage from the scope of torture. Yes, it’s easy to mount silly counterexamples: if interrogator X punches detainee A in the face just once, and A goes “Ouch!” and gets a black eye that goes away in four days, we are not in the land of torture. But we have a moral intuition, expressed in widespread folk language, that certain kinds of pain and physical damage rise to the level of torture even if you appear to make a full physical recovery afterwards. How do we handle this?

I think the key concept here is of lingering psychological trauma, which unifies this problem with the issue of what constitutes an unacceptable degree of psychological harm. If a torturer causes you to be repeatedly bitten by rats, and you recover from rat bites but have a phobia of rodents for the rest of your life, that’s lingering trauma; if you are waterboarded and can never again step into a shower without getting the shakes, that is too (while the latter case is hypothetical, the former is not). Here again, the key distinction is irreversability. Something has been done to you that never actually ends.

Of course, as I observed before, there will be a certain amount of gamesmanship around claims of psychological trauma. But even so we can draw two conclusions, both valuable.

One is this: If you have a test for irreversible psychological trauma that you believe, then you have resolved most of the definitional problems around torture. I don’t think we’re very far from this. The neurology of phobia and trauma is becoming tolerably well understood, with observations of measurable changes in the amygdala and hippocampus.

The second is this: To avoid committing torture, you must refrain from using interrogation or punishment or self-gratification techniques which are likely to produce irreversible trauma, either physical or psychological, in the subject. This is both sufficient and necessary.

Having proposed and justified a definition, I can now state unequivocally that I am against torture. And torture is no longer therdiglob. I know what I am opposing, and you know what I am opposing too. If my definition seems repellently legalistic to you, blame the people who have been flinging the term “torture” around so promiscuously that a folk definition is no longer good enough.

I am against torture because it is a horrible crime against its victims, and because it corrupts the people and institutions that use it. We must all oppose torture, if only for Thomas Paine’s reason: “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

It should now also be clear why I am opposed to frivolous and petty-partisan accusations of torture, especially in regard to practices which do not meet the definition I have justified. We do not make our liberty secure when we confuse the trivial with the serious, when we dilute and debauch the only language we have for condemning oppression and atrocities. We cannot oppose torture with the moral force required if we have rendered the concept and the term vacuous. And those who seek to make it vacuous while posing as the defenders of liberty are in sober fact the enemies of liberty.