Saturday, April 9, 2011

On what is torture

One way to tell whether a particular act is torture is to see what company it keeps. This idea, embodied in the Latin phrase "noscitur a sociis," is actually a venerable tool for interpreting the language of statutes -- but the logic applies to interpreting the nature of other practices as well.

On that score, here's a striking sentence from Laura Hillenbrand's book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010) -- the story of an American air force officer named Louie Zamperini and the tremendous suffering he endured in World War II, especially the terrible treatment he experienced at the hands of Japanese prison-camp guards. Writing about one of Zamperini's fellow American prisoners, Hillenbrand says: "The Japanese had attempted, in vain, to torture information out of Fitzgerald, clubbing him, jamming penknives under his fingernails, tearing his fingernails off, and applying the 'water cure' -- tipping him backward, holding his mouth shut, and pouring water up his nose until he passed out." (201)

Hillenbrand does not mention the obvious analogy to the United States' use of what's now called waterboarding. But it seems clear enough that in using this technique what we did was to take a technique that had historically been part of the repertoire of torturers. We sought to sanitize it, at least in appearance, but we meant precisely to take advantage of its brutal coercion. Putting aside all intricate questions of the meaning of torture as defined in our statutes -- one should not expect to borrow from torturers and escape their taint.

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