The debate over torture is not as simple as it seems. Those of us who oppose torture under any circumstances should admit that ours is an unpopular policy that may make us more vulnerable to terrorismby Michael Ignatieff / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
It is difficult to think about torture honestly. In a recent article on the interrogation techniques employed by the US, the writer Mark Bowden observed that few “moral imperatives make such sense on a large scale, but break down so dramatically in the particular.” The moral imperative—do not torture, any time, anywhere, in any circumstances—is mandated by the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency,” says the convention, can “be invoked as a justification of torture.” That terrorists themselves torture does not change these imperatives. Our compliance does not depend on reciprocity.
As long as we stay on this high ground of unconditional prohibition, we seem to know where we are. Problems begin when we descend into the particular, when we ask what exactly counts as torture.
Since no state wants to be seen as torturing suspects but all states want to be able to extract information to protect their citizens, the key question is whether states can use methods of “coercive interrogation” that do not qualify as torture.When the torture convention was ratified by the US Senate in 1994, maintaining a meaningful distinction between coercive but lawful interrogation and outright torture was a central concern. The Senate ratified the convention on the understanding that torture should be reserved for “severe physical or mental pain or suffering” resulting in “prolonged mental harm.” Once the war on terror began, the parsing of the convention went still further. In the now notorious memos submitted by the office of legal counsel to the White House in 2002, these definitions were stretched to the point that the threshold for torture “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” Any physical abuse below that standard counted as “coercive interrogation.” Some forms of coercive interrogation, the lawyers admitted, might not be torture, but they would still be defined as “inhuman and degrading treatment.”
When in 1978 the European court of human rights investigated British interrogation practices in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s, it concluded that a range of painful practices constituted inhuman and degrading practice even if they did not qualify as torture. When the Israeli…