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Defining Torture

Category : Uncategorized · by Jan 14th, 2009

Bob Woodward’s article in today’s Washington Post includes the first Bush Administration confirmation of torture at Guantanamo. Susan Crawford, who was named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Gates in February 2007, went on the record:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

Aside from an official admission of something everyone already knew, what is most interesting about this human rights embarrassment? I think we should focus on the definitional argument undergirding the administrative decision labeling these “abusive techniques” as too rough while other detainees’ experiences during stays at Gitmo and in foreign prisons after CIA rendition still remain undisclosed or unclassified as torture. Consider Crawford’s logic in deciding to call Qahtani’s treatment “torture” and halt prosecution:

Crawford, 61, said the combination of the interrogation techniques, their duration and the impact on Qahtani’s health led to her conclusion. “The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent. . . . You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge” to call it torture, she said.


Thus, the medicalization of torture. It is a biopolitical classification right out of Discipline and Punish. While the purpose of torture is to trigger a psychological breakdown (this was certainly accomplished: “There is no doubt he was tortured,” Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, Qahtani’s civilian attorney, said this week. “He has loss of concentration and memory loss, and he suffers from paranoia.”) this definition sidesteps the psychic realm in favor of the more easily categorizable medical definition. Taken as the legally accepted category of “torture,” this policy would run into the same ethical problems as capital punishment, since doctors’ Hippocratic Oaths would seem to ban participation in torture. Were a licensed doctor’s medical opinion is required to render legally binding judgement on the limits of a prisoner’s human rights, these ethical dilemmas would become legal problems akin to the ones that caused the Supreme Court to issue stays on executions last year.

Moreover, the production of torture as a medical classification cloaks this stain on American justice with an aura of – if not respectability – control and reasonability. I can already imagine Limbaugh’s quip: “Liberals should stop complaining, these terrorists’ interrogations are conducted under the supervision of a doctor. That’s more than many Americans without health insurance can say about their own lives.” Compare the implications of this medicalized definition on popular ethics with the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 5 

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6 

    Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

These standards refer not to a judgment of whether a particular abusive technique crosses a medicinal threshold of harm but instead to maintaining the humanity and dignity of prisoners. By fracturing the public (and legal) perception of American interrogation policy with the neutrality of medical categorization, any sense of humanity is lost among definitions and biometric data.

There is a profound political content here. The accepted definition of torture works along with (and shapes) its cultural representations to manufacture public consent to coercive policies. Consider the following three fictionalized depictions of torture 

Orwell’s account of O’Brien’s interrogation of Winston Smith makes it clear that torture is not about hurting the body, but about controlling the mind. At the novel’s climax, the reader is gripped by Winston’s fear of the rats, struggling to break through the cage and surge toward his face. As readers, we feel that it’s not Winston’s physical experience in the Ministry of Love that causes him to finally break, it is the psychological degradation, culminating in his betrayal of Julia. After his release, we see that the torture was not a issue quantifiable in medical terms, but an assault on his humanity.

For all of the movie’s flaws, V for Vendetta provides one of the most compelling post-9/11 depictions of torture. For all of the sequence’s brutality, the viewer doesn’t see Evey Hammond’s torture as a physical issue. Instead, we see the complete destruction of Natalie Portman’s humanity.

These two pictures of torture are quite different from the standard fare on 24, which I think is one of the most important cultural texts of this decade. 24 is full of completely medicalized torture:

However, with only a week left of Bush’s presidency, the new season of 24 began with Jack Bauer facing a Senate hearing on his past use of torture. After four hours, we still haven’t seen a classic Jack Bauer torture session because of the other characters’ new-found moral ambiguity. Each time Jack (or anyone else) needs some information, there is this “delicate” dance to find the proper boundary. Once again, 24 is able to find the zeitgeist of its moment, even if its heavy handedness ensures an unrealistic and predictable plot.   


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