The Definition Game

The Definition Game May 12, 2009

One of the funnier falsehood current is the claim that I “refuse to define” what torture is and that I claim that “to ask that question is to sin.”

Here is reality: I have, in fact, given multiple replies to the demand “Define torture”

Among them have been such replies as:

A) Check the Dictionary.
B) Check the Army Field Manual or some reference book for police interrogators on proper treatment of prisoners.
C) The Interrogator’s Golden Rule seems reasonable: “Don’t do it to a prisoner if you’d consider it abuse when done to a buddy or yourself.”
D) If you are still utterly baffled, you could try paying attention to Policratus’ handy delineation of the question, which is, of course, just a regurgitation of the Church’s basic teaching:

[T]he Church defines torture formally (i.e., what makes an action torture):

1. violation of human dignity in the form of
2. intentional mental and/or physical harm in order to
3. use a human person as a means (or instrument) for some producible end
4. against that person’s will.

These are the essential features of torture, and any material action with this form is torture. And it does not take any meticulous reasoning to figure out which material acts bear this essential form.

Church sources: Veritatis Splendor 80, Gaudium et spes 27.

At this point, the sincere inquirer is usually able to figure out that, at the very least, such tortures as waterboarding (not to mention doing it 183 times), inducing hypothermia by leaving you naked in the Afghan night and throwing freezing water on you till you die, or stress positions that kill you is, you know, torture.

The insincere inquirer goes on feigning utter and complete bafflement over whether we can *ever* know what “torture” (the scare quotes are essential) is. Strangely, he never proposes a definition of his own while maintain the bogus complaint that I “won’t define” torture.

It’s actually at *this* point that I think real sin is involved since it’s bleedin’ obvious the supposed hankerer after a definition is really simply looking for a way to define his preferred sin out of existence. Of him alone do I say that his request for a definition is basically a sin–because he’s a liar who has no interest in a definition but plenty of interest in excusing torture.

In addition to this actual sin, however, is another thing: more in the order of an intellectual mistake than a sin. It is the common notion that there is some bright line difference between torture and techniques that are “not quite” torture and that the job of the morally serious person is to find it.

This is simply an illusion. There is no bright line between torture and not-quite-torture as Tom Kreitzberg put it so eloquently years ago:

“bright lines” don’t exist.

They do not exist.

Of existence they have none.

There are no bright lines. There are no dim lines. There are no lines.

The lines you insist on do not exist. They are not.

I recommend against constructing laws based on these bright lines, since they don’t exist.

The smallest and most innocuous thing (a drip of water) can, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, be used to drive a man to madness. And so, I note that the attempt to “define torture” in a way that flat-footedly says X technique could never be employed as torture is simply not treating with reality. We can either face that fact or go on stupidly insisting on the impossible Bright Line “definition”.

I think insisting on the impossible is a stupid way to do our moral thinking. Therefore, I think it obvious a different way of approach is needed other than a list of Church-approved interrogation techniques. What is needed is a paradigm shift.

As it happens, the Church gives us guidance here. The paradigm shift consists of the fact that the Church does not bother it’s head with the trying to find the non-existent bright line between not-quite-torture and torture. Instead it refers us first to the question “What is the dignity of the human person and how can we properly respect it while seeking the intelligence we need?” If you start there, you will never accidently torture somebody, yet you will find yourself.. well, doing what the Army Field Manual and Geneva Convention says you should do with prisoners. You won’t have to trouble yourself about how many times you can waterboard somebody before it’s technically, you know, torture because you will be using tried-and-true (and humane) methods of interrogation that worked on Nazis and Commies and reportedly even worked on guys like Abu Zubaydah before the Bush Administration stupidly decided to torture him anyway. Best part, you significantly reduce your chance of getting false information that sends you off on wild goose chases for non-existent plots and makes the “information” you retrieved inadmissible in court.

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  • Hi Mark, not sure if you look at comments on old posts but…
    The bottom line is that someone needs to make a decision on what to do with someone who has information that will save lives. The ends do not justify the means, but someone needs to use “a line”. For example, if interrogating someone for 72 hours straight is torture, how about 1 hour? What number of hours is torture? Someone would need to decide. I thank God it’s not me and we should pray for those in that position.
    We can throw some subjectivity on anything, but some things are more subjective than others.

    Teachings on torture and just war need to be applied on a case-by-case basis. We can do the same for teachings on abortion or homosexuality, but there is less ambiguity about what exactly is going on.
    Thanks for your time!

    • chezami

      The Church’s recommendation is best: Aim to treat prisoners humanely instead of trying to see who close you can get to torturing them without technically crossing the line and you won’t torture anybody.

  • I found this due to a 2014 link back to it from you, Mark. Since comments haven’t closed, I’m tossing in my perception of a logical failure. Yes, innocuous things can be made into torture. But that cuts both ways in that no kid gloves techniques are not necessarily torture if done with the right attitude. The prohibition against torture does not go to techniques. It is an application of the idea to love your enemy to not allow you to “use a human person as a means (or instrument) for some producible end” a statement that is technique agnostic. This also clears up the issue of SERE school waterboarding quite nicely. The instructors may not look like they’re dishing out love but they are.

    This standard, honestly read, is terribly inconvenient for both sides of the conventional debate which usually means that the Church thinks that the entire premise is wrong and the conversation should be going forward on other lines.