24 June 2004
There are times - and, alas, they seem to be growing more frequent - when decent human beings can only recoil aghast at the conversation that is being conducted in all seriousness before them. On Tuesday, we had the release by the White House of a thick file of papers detailing the discussions that took place inside the US administration about rules for interrogating prisoners. The apparent purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate that President George Bush's first concern was that prisoners in US custody in Iraq and elsewhere should be treated "humanely". What the mass of material actually reveals is that the approach of the administration was to ask not "how humane can we be?" but "how far can we go before we cross the boundary from tough interrogation to torture?"
The dictionary definitions of torture are many. So far as the treatment of prisoners is concerned, from Guantanamo through Afghanistan to Iraq, words such as "abuse" and "mistreatment" have generally figured more prominently than "torture". But while the precise definition of torture may be open to linguistic and judicial debate, do interrogators really have to apply thumbscrews, pull nails and administer electric shocks before they become torturers? To the ordinary person, practices such as hooding, the perpetual playing of loud music, sleep deprivation, diet change, sexual humiliation, intimidation with dogs - to name but some of the documented practices at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison - constitute torture. They surely also fit the definition of "cruel and unusual punishment" outlawed by the US Constitution.
But the bigger point is that no government should have to resort to hair-splitting over small-print definitions to extricate itself from accusations of torture, least of all a government that has set itself up as the beacon of freedom and the protector of the oppressed. It is hard to conceive of any greater betrayal of the "inalienable" human rights declared by America's founding fathers - the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - than the practice of torture: with or without music, with or without dogs, and however the lawyers and linguists may choose to define it.