# Threshholds

Threshholds June 16, 2005

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. … On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

from an FBI agent’s report from Guantanamo

I’ve written a good bit here about Powerball, the popular multistate lottery that often features a jackpot advertised as tens of millions of dollars.

Because the odds against picking the winning numbers in Powerball are 121 million-to-1, I’ve argued that the game is for suckers. It’s not a fair bet, which is to say the odds against winning are greater than the payout. It would be a fair bet to wager \$1 for a \$10 million jackpot if the odds of winning were 10 million-to-1, but not if the odds are 121 million-to-1. Thus, I argued, playing Powerball is irrational unless the actual jackpot equals or exceeds \$121 million.

This argument makes mathematical sense, but it is nonetheless wrong. The idea of a fair bet, it turns out, only makes sense at a certain scale, up until a certain threshhold.

The Powerball jackpot, even at its lowest, would be for most people a life-changing sum. And conventional arithmetic does not apply to life-changing sums. A \$10 million jackpot would radically alter the winner’s life in a way that any additional tens of millions of dollars would not. For most people, therefore, the difference between a \$10 million jackpot and a \$121 million jackpot is inconsequential compared to the difference that initial \$10 million would make in their lives.

The point here is that once you get beyond a certain threshhold, relative comparisons don’t really matter.

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. … On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

The United States of America — as a matter of official policy conducted with our money, in our name — tortures and abuses prisoners and detains people indefinitely without charge or due process.

Defenders of this practice point out that A) these prisoners are suspected of being very, very bad people; and B) America’s torture regime is nowhere near as widespread, systematic or brutal as the worst examples of such regimes. Point A is factually suspect, but even if 100 percent true, irrelevant. I’ll get back to that point in a future post. I want here to deal mainly with point B.

In an earlier post, I described this as the “NABA defense” — Not As Bad As. The NABA defense is, for what it’s worth, arithmetically accurate. The American prison camps in Guantanamo, Bagram, Afghanistan and elsewhere are, in fact, not as vast or as brutal as Stalin’s gulags. The American camps are also Not As Bad As the contemporary torture facilities that the U.S. occasionally subcontracts in places like Uzbekistan.

But such comparisons are beside the point. The threshhold has been crossed and conventional arithmetic no longer applies. The only relevant and meaningful comparison is between those regimes that countenance torture and those that do not. Once a nation crosses that line any difference between it and other torture regimes is inconsequential in comparison to the difference between it and those nations which have refused to cross that threshhold.

The NABA defense correctly insists that Guantanamo is different in degree from Stalin’s gulag. It is different in degree, but not in kind. And that difference of kind is the only difference that matters. America has entered the wrong category. We have crossed a threshhold.

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. … On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

(The FBI agent’s report from Guantanamo comes from a statement by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., which I read via TalkLeft, Eschaton and Making Light, where Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes: “This is your country. This is your people. This is your relatives. This is us. … This. Is. Who. We. Are.”)

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