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The torture debate

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Like the debate they fuel, Hannity and Mr. Olbermann miss the point. Torture isn't about how long one volunteer lasts on the waterboard. Torture is, in fact, the opposite: It's about the helplessness of the person strapped to the waterboard.

"The absence of control, the absence of any kind of ... mutual agreement about what is respected ... all of that is stripped away," says Uwe Jacobs, the clinical director of Survivors International, an outreach organization for torture survivors living in the US. "It's the same thing you see in rape. What is it, precisely, that makes rape in many cases so traumatic for people? It's not the physical pain they experience.... It is the total invasion of a space that has to remain private."

UNTIL THE 9/11 ATTACKS, no one would have thought it controversial to call waterboarding "torture," Mr. Jacobs and others say. Historians, sociologists, and political scientists have written libraries about the characteristics of torture – the powerlessness of the tortured and the absolute power of the torturer; the firm – at times, religiously sanctioned – belief in the utility of pain to extract truth.

Although not all of its signatories have stood by their pledge, the Convention Against Torture is a mark of, if nothing else, international semantic consensus.

Before the Bush administration's pursuit of "enhanced interrogation," the definition of torture was clear, says Darius Rejali, a political science professor at Reed College, in Portland, Ore. "Everybody understood it.... There has never been a debate over the meaning of torture in the international sense."

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