For a long time I resisted the word "torture" when discussing the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used against high-value captives in the war on terror. I don't think I can do that anymore.
The report put out by
It's true that torture is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. Everyone can agree that hot pokers, the rack and the iron maiden qualify. But loud music, sleep deprivation and even waterboarding? At first, maybe not. But over time, yes. Torture can be a lot like poison: The dosage matters.
One of the great problems with the word "torture" is that it tolerates no ambiguity. It is a taboo word, like racism or incest. Once you call something torture, the conversation is supposed to end. It's a line no one may cross. As a result, if you think the enhanced interrogation techniques are necessary, or simply justified, you have to call them something else. Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them "torture," their work is done.
The problem is that the issue isn't nearly so binary.
And this suggests why the talking point about drone strikes has such power. Killing is worse than torture. Life in prison might be called torture for some people, and yet we consider the death penalty a more severe punishment. Most people would prefer to be waterboarded than killed. All sane and decent people would rather go through what
It's odd: Even though killing is a graver moral act, there's more flexibility to it. America killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in World War II, but few would call that murder because such actions as the firebombing of Dresden were deemed necessary to win the war.
In other words, we have the moral vocabulary to talk about kinds of killing -- from euthanasia and abortion to capital punishment, involuntary manslaughter and, of course, murder -- but we don't have a similar lexicon when it comes to kinds of torture.
This may sound like nothing more than a rationalization. But that is to be expected when you try to reason through a morally fraught problem. If you believe torture is wrong no matter what, then any sentence that begins, "Yeah, but ..." will seem like so much bankrupt sophistry. The same goes for truly devout believers in nonviolence who think any and all killing is wrong.
I can respect that, because I think the taboo against torture is important and honorable, just like the taboos against killing. And just like the taboos against killing, sometimes the real world gets a veto.