Sunday, January 30, 2005

MAYBE WE SHOULD DEFINE TORTURE as a moral value. Maybe if we did that, we would not have Bush nominees like Michael Chertoff, Bush's pick for head of homeland security, advising the Central Intelligence Agency (in 2002 and 2003, when he was head of the Justice Department's criminal division) on how much abuse their interrogators could get away with before they could be prosecuted for torture under the U.S. torture statute.

Mr. Chertoff's division was asked on several occasions by the intelligence agency whether its officers risked prosecution by using particular techniques. The officials said the C.I.A. wanted as much legal protection as it could obtain while the Justice Department sought to avoid giving unconditional approval.

Chertoff apparently defines that line in accordance with the infamous 2002 memo from Justice that said torture was only torture if it caused pain at a level equivalent to organ failure or death. Yet he also approved "waterboarding," which is a form of torture in which a person is strapped to a board and immersed under water so he experiences the sensation of drowning and thinks he IS going to be drowned. Presumably the feeling of lungs exploding with the inability to breathe that constitutes the sensation of drowning is not considered by Chertoff and his colleagues to be painful, even though the sensation of drowning does usually mean that death is imminent.

Which brings me back to my original point. If torture is a legal issue, rather than a moral issue, then it is acceptable to abuse, terrify, humiliate, degrade, and cause severe pain as long as the specific methods employed do not cross a line defined by law. The task then becomes where to place that line, and what position the abusive treatment in question falls with respect to that line. But IS torture solely a legal issue? Or is it also a moral issue?

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