Parsing words about torture

September 25, 2006|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- President Bush has a way, when asked about American treatment of alleged terrorists, of narrowing his eyes, jutting out his chin and stating, emphatically, "We do not torture."

It's the most convincing declaration by a president since Bill Clinton told the nation, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Mr. Clinton was telling the truth, in his way, because he defined sexual relations to exclude oral intimacy. Like Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush has used a seemingly unequivocal statement for the purpose of equivocation. Renouncing brutality turns out to be a way of embracing it.

One thing he means is that we do not torture according to his exceedingly narrow definition of the word. Under current policy, only the worst forms of torture are forbidden. That means we reject such time-honored methods as breaking fingers, applying electric shocks to tender body parts, burning skin with lighted cigarettes or beating the soles of feet with metal rods. Or, as one Bush administration official put it last year, "We are against ... torture by anyone's common-sense definition of it, not some fancy definition."

The official policy is that while outright torture is banned, all sorts of other tactics designed to inflict pain, suffering and fear are allowed. Depriving prisoners of food, water, sleep or medical care is OK. Forcing them to stand or kneel in uncomfortable positions for long periods passes muster.

Likewise for holding someone's head under water to make him feel he's drowning ("waterboarding"). Or putting a prisoner in a cold room, soaking him with water and leaving him to shiver. Apparently, those are torture only by "some fancy definition."

But even the policy against torture is not as firm as it looks, since the administration itself sometimes finds it convenient to go by the "fancy definition." In the State Department's annual report on human rights, it condemns various governments for abusing inmates with waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forced kneeling and dousing with cold water. When they do it, it's torture. When we do it, it's an "alternative" method.

We can't even be sure how strictly the administration abides by its own rules, flexible though they are. Nearly 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody, and a study by the group Human Rights First found that at least eight of them were tortured to death. The longest prison sentence for anyone punished in these cases was five months.

Our policy of abstaining from torture doesn't quite mean that those we capture will not be tortured. Under a policy known as "extraordinary rendition," the United States sometimes turns detainees over to governments that are less squeamish about these things. The advantage is that we may get the answers we want without having to do the dirty work ourselves.

Last week, a Canadian government commission issued a blistering report about the treatment of a Canadian whom the U.S. arrested and shipped to Syria, where he was beaten until he confessed. We now know he was innocent.

One Guantanamo inmate was sent to Egypt for interrogation. When he returned, most of his fingernails had been torn out.

Of course, the president and his allies defend nasty methods as an essential way of getting intelligence from terrorists. They say the CIA's techniques have extracted information that saved American lives. They think we shouldn't shut down this "aggressive" program because it works.

But if methods short of torture can extract valuable information, why not go further? If waterboarding doesn't induce a terrorist to talk, why shouldn't we rip out his fingernails, break his bones, scorch his flesh or crush his genitals? The arguments used to justify the administration's coercive methods can be used to justify anything.

Mr. Bush's stated policy is, "We do not torture." Anyone who really believes in the logic behind his policies ought to be asking, "Why on earth not?"

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears in The Sun on Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is

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