Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”     Étienne de La Boétie,    The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

June 5, 2009

Comment of the Day: A Welcome Voice from Liberty Papers Past

by Stephen Littau

Re: Mancow gets waterboarded

It’s always a treat to hear from Eric, the founder of The Liberty Papers. Its comments like this one which make me miss his “grumbles.” This comment was in response to a discussion sparked by Stephen Gordon’s post concerning waterboarding:

Interesting discussion. Chris has a very valid point about altering the meaning of the language. He also points out that waterboarding is a form of coercion and that coercion should not be used on prisoners. But, in the heated and traumatic rejection of his assertions about what torture is, the more important point he makes is lost.

The point is, coercive interrogation is wrong to do to someone who we hold prisoner. Chris said that loud and clear, but folks are so incensed that he might not agree that something is torture that they miss the fundamentally more important point. Another fundamentally important issue, if you believe in The Rule of Law, is that we don’t have clear laws on what to do with terrorist combatants and that poses a problem. One of the keys to solving the problems of piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries was to promulgate clear, consistent, logically and legally sound laws and regulations for dealing with pirates.

We don’t have that for terrorists today, and that’s a problem.

P.S. adding to the point about use of language. We used to know that torture meant causing permanent injury to someone. When we talked about the police giving someone the “third degree”, it meant physically injuring someone to coerce them to do something. The reason we said “third degree” is that there were three levels of Inquisition used during the Catholic Inquisition.

1st Degree – Discussing the crimes someone is accused of and informing them that stronger methods of inquisition can be used if they don’t cooperate

2nd Degree – Showing the accused person the methods that can be used, like racks, knives, flails and other implements of torture

3rd Degree – Actually using those implements on the accused person, i.e. the Third Degree of Inquisition.

So, the very tortured definitions of torture that folks are trying to come up are actually changing the meanings of the language in ways that support the individual’s position. This is something that Orwell argued strenuously against and that most “libertarians” argue against, as well. Except, it seems, when being for it supports their personal beliefs.

Causing PTSD does not automatically make something torture. PTSD can be caused by a car accident, by seeing your sibling die, by participating in violent combat and many other things. None of which are “torture”. I suggest that we should return to the traditional definition that doing things which would be considered “the third degree” is torture. Let’s use the language right. AND we can still agree that things which are not torture, but are inhumane or coercive, or both, are wrong for US interrogators to do to our prisoners.

Comment by Eric — June 5, 2009 @ 8:24 am

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3 Comments

  1. Excellent points. Language is indeed important to this discussion. Changing definitions or uses of words is becoming rather common place, what’s really odd is that most people don’t even seem to notice.

    Another off topic, but related point I think would be worthy of discussion would be initial aggression as it relates to terrorism against the United States.

    Comment by John222 — June 6, 2009 @ 8:27 am
  2. Chris’ comments were largely in response to my comment, and I disagree that I am redefining the definition of torture, so much as defending it from the attempts of others to so redefine it very narrowly in order to permit the U.S. government to torture people while pretending that they are not torturing people.

    The people who wish to redefine it more narrowly are arguing that anything that does not do permanent damage is not torture. under such a rubric, anally raping someone with sufficient amoutn of lubricant wouldn’t be torture, but pulling out their fingernails would be. Performing mock executions on a prisoner would not be torture but dislocating a pinkie finger would be.

    My argument was that the redefiners were, even by their own narrowly defined definition, failing to absolve the U.S. There may be no obvious macroscopic scar or physical deformity left after making a guy watch someone beat his children bloody and his wife get raped, yet it does do permanent, debilitating harm.

    I don’t have a rigorous, systematic definition of torture. To me, it’s like obscenity; I can’t define it, but know it when I see it. The term is derived from the same root are “Torment”.

    Incidentally, the notion that somehting isn’t torture if it can happen to people naturally doesn’t really wash – all of us will agree that shattering someone’s kneecaps is torture. Yet, in a car accident, I could easily have my knee-caps shattered.

    I do, however, agree with what seems to be the general consensus; regardless of whether these “enhanced interrogation techniques” (those Nazis had sure had a gift for language) meet the definition of torture, they are counterproductive and every level:
    1) they strengthen the enemy’s will to fight.
    2) they generate inaccurate information.

    Comment by tarran — June 6, 2009 @ 7:02 pm
  3. This discussion brings to mind another question – the debate over whether or not a specific act can be defined as “torture” as it relates to interrogations regarding terrorism – in the U.S. people are terrorized everyday by fellow citizens – rape, murder and other violent crimes -therefore, how can these methods of “torture” to gain infomation be justified in regard to international terrorism but not acceptable in relation to domestic terrorism? Can’t remember his name but the guy that murdered the abortion doctor claimed there will be more violent acts, but use of “torture” to gain more info from him would be out of the question, but would be acceptable if he were not a U.S. citizen? Hope I’m making sense here, very tired at the moment, any thoughts on this?

    Comment by indygirl — June 20, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

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