Torture Is Not a Hard Concept

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Like all of us, I’ve had to spend the past several days listening to a procession of stony-faced men—some of them defiant, others obviously nervous—grimly trying to defend the indefensible, and I’m not sure how much more I can take. How hard is this, after all? Following 9/11, we created an extensive and cold-blooded program designed to inflict severe pain on prisoners in order to break them and get them to talk. That’s torture. It always has been, and even a ten-year-old recognizes that legalistic rationalizations about enemy combatants, “serious” physical injury, and organ failure are transparent sophistry. Of course we inflicted severe pain. Moderate pain would hardly induce anyone to talk, would it? And taking care not to leave permanent marks doesn’t mean it’s not torture, it just means you’re trying to make sure you don’t get caught.

Christ almighty. Either you think that state-sanctioned torture of prisoners is beyond the pale for a civilized country or you don’t. No cavils. No resorts to textual parsing. And no exceptions for “we were scared.” This isn’t a gray area. You can choose to stand with history’s torturers or you can choose to stand with human decency. Pick a side.

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