Millman's Crossing

Like Noah, I’ve had a small journey through the intellectual wilds of what’s torture, what’s not, and who’s wanting in the balance. For me the bottom line is that the further away we get from the definition of torture being an act, the more dreadful our situation becomes.

For instance, breaking at the wheel. This is an act, a process defined by its beginning and its end. Yes, the end is death, so maybe that’s a poor example. So try ripping out fingernails. You know when this starts and you know when it ends. These are crude and easily categorizable acts of torture. Think of Joe Pesci putting a guy’s head in a vise. In the Sopranos or whatever when you beat a man’s hand with a hammer. Torture.

Thus this world was graced with the persnickety evil of techniques which, done once, are obviously not torture, yet which become torture over some period of time. Chinese water torture. Apply a one-drip rule, and bye bye torture. The same thing with blasting Slipknot in a cement cell. One song: bothersome. Twenty-four hours: torture. This seems pretty cut and dried to me.

So it hurts to recognize that the definition of torture that has a certain vogue among terror hawks is all about adjectives and nothing about nouns, all a matter of how long, who’s doing it, break periods, no scars, etc., etc. The idea is to deliberately plunge into the gray area and decide in the thick of things when you’ve gone ‘too far.’ Typically I imagine this means taking a look at the heap of human flesh on the ground at your feet and deciding, with all the existential shrugging appropriate to the occasion, that ‘he’s had enough.’ Suddenly — or, should I say, more horribly, gradually — torture is defined by the point at which the ‘interrogator’ is exhausted.

But I’ve got to sound the alarm on account of Noah’s phrasing here:

This is partly a matter of the degree to which legalizing torture feels like a profound betrayal of founding principles, and the degree to which this feels like a matter of national honor.

I know I beat this horse with vigor and enthusiasm, but I really think it’s a profound mistake to account for our opposition to torture in terms of feelings and senses of things instead of facts. What counts is not whether a certain procedure of ‘enhanced interrogation’ feels to us like something queasy or dishonorable, but whether we can give each other persuasive accounts of why a certain procedure is contrary to our founding principles or contrary to honor. We must hold fast to the facts. It’s the transformation of the terms of torture out of the realm of facts and acts and into the realm of feelings and subjective sentiments that has propelled us so deep into this mess.

The evil genius of waterboarding is to create a technique which, as a noun, is not torture, but which — once we grant the government the ability to perpetrate the act — becomes torture when repeated at length and according to unbridled, unrestrained whim. You can see I’m even trapped in language moves while trying to get out of them: the act of ‘the waterboard’ was devised to be not torture so that the procedure or ‘technique’ of waterboard-*ing* could apply qualities of torture to the act and thus avoid being an act of torture. We have dutifully invented (or inherited from darker fathers) actions that cause a ‘sense of powerlessness’ instead of causing the real powerlessness that results from, say, breaking off a thin glass rod in a victim’s penis (to take one Gestapo example). We deny the guilt of torture by practicing meta-torture. Of course waterboarding is physically rotten. But the recovery and impermanent damage that come with it define the depth of its possibilities of malevolence.

When I hear ‘sense of honor’ talk, I think Huckabee, who wants to stay in Iraq not because it’s the right idea but because it feels right. Meta-honor. What counts isn’t holding ourselves to the moral responsibility of being honorable, but holding ourselves to the obligation of ensuring that, whatever happens, we feel honorable. It’s part of a bigger therapeutic move that can do this country, as it already has done, great harm.