While I’m hesitant to jump into the ongoing debate here (I’ve already got my hands full discussing the issue on the First Thoughts blog) I wanted to add a clarification and a question:

Clarification: John Mark defines torture as “intending to inflict permanent psychological or physical harm to a man in order to break his will and get information from him that he does not wish to give us.”

I have to take issue with his inclusion of the word permanent. Almost everyone I’ve talked to in this debate seems to think that permanency of effect is part of the word’s meaning. But none of the domestic or international documents that the U.S. subscribes to define the term in that way—and for good reason: it would preclude many acts that we would normally consider to be torture.

Take, for instance, the most common example used when talking about torture: putting bamboo under a person’s fingernails. This action causes no permanent damage; is it therefore not torture? And what about other forms of physical damage that are not permanent? Broken bones and cuts heal over time. Does that mean we can use clubs and knives during interrogations?

Also, proving that an act causes permanent psychological damage is nearly impossible. How do we know how a particular person will be affected? Many people who endure rape or sexual abuse are not permanently scarred. Are we therefore justified in using rape as an interrogation technique in extreme emergencies?

Question: I’m curious to hear why, if torture is allowed by the state, that it’s use can only be justified on foreigners and not on our own citizens. Capturing terrorist who have knowledge of actions that will cause future loss of life are rare. But the police capture criminals every day who have knowledge that could prevent the deaths of innocents. Why don’t we allow the police to torture them?

We often justify the use of torture in the hypothetical ticking bomb scenarios of terrorism. Yet these are actual situations in which the state could protect the innocent on a daily basis. How do we justify the use of torture against terrorists but not against criminals? Why is saving lives in one situation right and in the other wrong? (I’m speaking of the morality, not just the legality of such actions.)

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