On television, in the newspaper, in discussions with friends, and even in the comments on this weblog, I’ve seen people draw a distinction between coercion and torture. First, let it be said that the military (and other people who interrogate prisoners, like policemen) have come up with lots of ways to interrogate prisoners to get them to divulge information that they may not initially want to give up without torturing them. So there is a lot of middle ground between asking nicely and warming up the electrodes.

The general argument in favor of “coercion” is that there are techniques that can be used which are unpleasant but that do not constitute torture, and that these should be legal. In other words, sleep deprivation or exposure to extreme temperatures or even water boarding is OK but a savage beating with a truncheon is not. I would submit that for any of these techniques to “work”, they have to be applied to the extent that they must be considered torture.

Think about the mechanism of torture and coercion. The purpose of these techniques is to put the subject in a state of mind where their need for relief forces their reptile brain to overwhelm their human brain and do whatever is necessary to obtain that relief. As long as a determined subject of interrogation is in a state of mind where they can make rational choices, they will choose not to divulge the information that they have. (If they weren’t going to hold out anyway, there’s no need to torture them in the first place.) Inflicting pain, inducing fear, or humiliating a person to the point where they are in a state of mind where they are no longer able to rationally choose what they will or will not say is torture, period. It requires no interpretation to describe such treatment as an “outrage upon personal dignity.”

As regards the effectiveness of torture (in other words, absent the moral issue, whether torture achieves its intended aims), don’t miss this observation by Jonah Blank:

The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn’t a coincidence. As has been amply documented (“The New Yorker” had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the “enhanced techniques” came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they’re taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies–the states where US military personnel might have faced torture–were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That’s what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.