2006/10/28

Torture redefined

Vice-Presidnet Cheney interviewed on radio show:

"Would you agree that a dunk in water [i.e., waterboarding, a procedure whereby a subject is made to feel as though he's drowning] is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" asked Hennen.

"It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president `for torture.' We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in," Cheney replied. "We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we're party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that."

What Cheney gives here is a defense that's only technically true. It is true that Congress recently passd a law that makes certain specified forms of torture legal/illegal. Not that there have been any internatoal agreemets to that effect, not that the morality of torture has changed in the slightest. Congress only passed the law because they've been acting as a rubber stamp parliament for the past six years anyway. Yes, there was a bit of kabuki where "Saint" John McCain and several other Senators appeared as though they were challenging the President, but that was all smoke and mirrors.

"We don't torture" is true strictly and entirely because American law has been adjusted so that a procedure that is clearly and unambiguously torture is now no longer defined as such. Of course waterboarding is torture, no matter what VP Cheney's personal opinion on the matter is. Regardless of how much the Bush Administration would like to believe otherwise, the US has unambiguously defined waterboarding as torture in the past:

"As early as 1901, a US court martial sentenced Major Edwin Glenn to 10 years hard labour for subjecting a suspected insurgent in the Philippines to the 'water cure'.

"After the second world war, US military commissions successfully prosecuted as war criminals several Japanese soldiers who subjected US prisoners to waterboarding.

"In 1968, a US army officer was court martialled for helping to waterboard a prisoner in Vietnam."

Torture is when one physically abuses a person, not just for the fun of it, but in an organizd fashion. It's done either to obtain information or simply to humliate, perhaps "break" a person. In the latter case, getting information is just the ostensible, theoretical objective. International human rights treaties are not specific as to what constitutes torture vs what is a "tough interrogation procedure" or any other such verbal gymnastics.

Update: As I was writing this, President Bush defended Cheney's remarks, but with very interesting similarities:

"Q Sir, do you agree with the Vice President that a dunk in the water is a 'no brainer' when it comes to interrogating a terror suspect?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: This country doesn't torture, we're not going to torture. We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they've got information that will be helpful to protect the country."

As Froomkin points out, however: "But of course Bush has never said how he defines torture, so the answer was meaningless."

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