Tortuous Distinctions

John Schwenkler’s short post on Phi Kappa Gitmo provoked an interesting exchange on detainee mistreatment in the comments section. One point that’s worth addressing is from commenter “Pan Cascadian”:

I think torture should carry very heavy penalties. Having said that, I can understand a particular commander feeling that torture was warranted or necessary in a given situation.

Pan Cascadian goes on to condemn torture, even under exigent circumstances, but this still raises a crucial point. Is it possible to limit the use of torture to certain extreme scenarios? Krauthammer’s 2005 article on the subject is frequently caricatured as some sort of proto-fascist diatribe, but it’s actually a carefully thought-out schematic for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’d venture that his proposed solution – a regularized torture regime that combines rigorous oversight with the training of extremely specialized interrogators – is actually more humane than the Bush Administration’s willy-nilly approach.

So why wouldn’t this work? Simple – it’s extremely difficult to limit the application of torture to a few readily-identifiable situations. Here’s a telling example from the Boston Globe (the whole article is well worth your time):

If the spread of torture techniques suggests a blurry line between “us” and “them,” it also teaches that there’s no real boundary between “there” and “here.” It would be ignoring history to assume that what happens in an American-run prison in Iraq will stay in Iraq. Soldiers who learn torture techniques abroad get jobs as police when they return, and the new developments in torture you read about today could yet be employed in a neighborhood near you. In Chicago, in the decade after Vietnam, the use of magnetos and other clean tortures left a disaster: At least 11 men were sentenced to death and many others given long-term prison sentences based on confessions extracted by torture, and in 2003, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the death sentences of all 167 death row inmates. Earlier this month the City of Chicago agreed to pay nearly $20 million to settle lawsuits filed by four former death row inmates who claimed they were tortured and wrongly convicted.

Brazil’s experience with “enhanced interrogation” should also give one pause:

. . . the Brazilian military dictatorship’s use of torture was far from being a sudden shift in the politico-criminal landscape, pointing out that torture had been used against criminal suspects and the (Afro-descendant) poor since at least the late-19th century. (Skidmore suggests that the use of torture against darker-skinned “criminals” is a direct legacy of slavery, abolished in Brazil only in 1888; while it’s difficult to quantitatively prove this, it makes a lot of sense). And just as the dictatorship didn’t initiate torture in Brazil (though it certainly did escalate it), torture didn’t end with the military governments in 1985, either, and continues to be a problem today . . .

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