Monday, December 15, 2014

Further Thoughts On Torture

As you might have expected, Gentle Reader, the previous essay on this subject elicited a great deal of feedback. Most of that feedback was of the “Are you BLEEP!ing serious?” variety. To those persons, I can only say: Yes, I was and I am. To those who inferred from what I wrote that:

  • Torture is an effective way of extracting vital information from a prisoner;
  • We can reliably trust governments with the privilege of torturing detainees?

...I can only say: Learn to read.

To save you unnecessary wear and tear on your mouse, here’s what I did say:

  • Torture can, in certain circumstances, be morally justified.
  • I -- not you, not your half-brother Herman, and certainly not the State, but Francis W. Porretto himself -- would not hesitate to use torture in those circumstances, if I thought it would save innocent lives.

I put my full name to everything I write for a reason: Unlike the multitudes who pop off callously, slanderously, or without thinking but prefer not to be called to account for it, I intend always to stand behind my words. I stand behind the ones in that previous essay. And as the title of this post implies, I have a few words to add to it.


Whether or not you deem torture to be potentially justifiable, there are significant problems yet to be solved. The most important of those problems is defining torture, such that we need not be guided by anyone’s opinions about it, or about where and when it’s been done.

Clearly, we cannot allow the supposed object of it to define torture, for he would define it as “whatever I would prefer not to experience.” Neither can we accept a subjective definition, based on the reaction to the object’s treatment, for the same reason. We must have a strict, intensive definition of torture, such that any particular practice can be tested against that definition to yield an unambiguous “It is” or “It isn’t” verdict.

An intensive definition requires:

  • A genus, or enveloping category;
  • A differentia, a characteristic that sets the defined things apart from all others in the genus.

The genus is “Treatment of an involuntary detainee.” There are few possibilities for a differentia.

Shall we define torture as “Any treatment of an involuntary detainee that causes him pain” -- ? That’s a subjective criterion, as we have no way to distinguish real from pretended pain.

What about “Any treatment of an involuntary detainee that damages him” -- ? I see problems with this, too, owing to the nebulousness of “damage” and the eternally contentious subject of mental or psychological cruelty.

Let’s pass right over “Any treatment of an involuntary detainee that the inflictor would object to having to endure,” for the same reasons. The Silver Rule is important, doubt it not, but it’s hardly a reliable standard for defining torture in a world that knows both sadists and masochists in significant numbers.

Shall we try “Any treatment of an involuntary detainee that damages him permanently” -- ? But there are so many kinds of damage that seem permanent at the moment they’re suffered, yet are healable by time or by artifice. Also, this plays into the “mental cruelty” conundrum.

Many, many persons have put their efforts to this question without arriving at a sturdy definition of torture, so don’t feel too bad if you can’t succeed where the rest of us have failed.


Complicating all discussions of torture is the rampant politicization of the subject. It’s been pointed out that the “extraordinary rendition” program began under the Clinton Administration, and that the Democrats had no problem with it at the time but are passionately interested in it now that the odium from it can be loaded onto the Bush II Administration. Beyond that, any definition for what constitutes torture will be contested for that reason: the accusers will want more categories of treatment included in it than they would dream of including were they the accused. Political maneuvering is like that.

This is certainly a good reason not to permit “torture” at the hands of the State...if we could agree on what it is. But when organizations such as CAIR can claim that for a Muslim detainee to be served “haram” meals, or to be confined in a cell whose toilet faces Mecca, or to be compelled to sit in the presence of a naked or half-naked woman constitutes “torture” and receive a respectful hearing, we have a problem that no law or regulation, however cleverly worded, can solve.


We should not pass from this topic without considering the effects of torture on the practitioners. It degrades them, and any culture that institutionalizes it, as surely as does slavery. That’s above and apart from the typical popular reaction against it. Such reactions have brought down whole nations whose governments have practiced it. It’s assuredly not something we’d want to make a regular, unquestioned part of wartime operations or penal practice. That makes it all the more important to arrive at a definition for it, albeit no easier to reach one.


Finally, as I mentioned in the earlier essay, the efficacy of torture is questionable. The chance of getting reliable information is better in some situations than others, but it’s never guaranteed. Yet the same could be said of any interrogatory technique.

There are ways to improve the efficacy of an information-seeking process that involves unwilling sources. If you have two or more such persons in your custody, you can use mutual confirmation reinforced with punishment for each deceit discovered. That is: If prisoner Smith says “They went North” while his (separately interrogated) comrade in arms Jones says “They went South,” you punish them until their answers match. That’s not guaranteed to produce the truth either, but it has better prospects.

The reinforced-mutual-confirmation approach can be further refined by including questions whose answers the interrogators already know. If the subjects are unaware of which questions those are, they provide “calibration” for the rest of the process, just as questions about one’s name, address, age, and so forth help to calibrate a polygraph session. Yet there will still remain uncertainties, for it’s possible to pre-arrange coordinated answers, at least for a range of questions, with one’s comrades, and to train away one’s tendencies to produce any of the obvious signs of deceit.

Ultimately, the only way to maximize the effectiveness of an interrogation technique, coercive or otherwise, is to get the subject to want to tell the truth, and to get him to tell it in a convincing manner. That’s a standard that can only be asymptotically approached, no matter what methods are employed.


Torture, like justice, love, and reality, is a subject beyond any mortal’s powers to exhaust. The most definitive statement I can make about it is that it will remain a field for the fiercest of intellectual and political combat long after I’ve departed this vale of tears. No proposed definition will be accepted by everyone. Innumerable participants in the debate will have axes to grind that will move them to obstruct the discussion, usually by accusing the more serious participants of low motives. Shifts in the political wind will add to whatever intensity the controversy would attain on its own.

Which doesn’t mean the discussion should not continue.

2 comments:

  1. Dear Mr. Porretto,

    My definition of torture: The willful infliction of physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual duress on an individual for no legitimate purpose.

    Enhanced interrogation techniques as practiced by various US agencies, in my mind, do not fall into that category, as the techniques were used to elicit actionable information used in the furtherance of the national interests during time of conflict.

    I do not see the benefit of releasing to the world any report which substantively hampers this nation's ability to defend itself.

    Thank you for your time,

    Chris Carroll

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  2. One benefit of releasing the document was it detracted the masses from the Gruber hearings, and also from the budget bill votes.

    That said, I heard the best argument that what the CIA did was not torture last night...if a reporter is volunteering to undergo waterboarding to see how bad it is, then it isn't torture....

    Dave in GA

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