The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, June 23, 2005


Greg Djerejian has launched a passionate rebuttal to James Lileks's torture-belittling screed. I am less passionate than Greg, but his call for idealism and honesty is correct in its essentials.

The chief difficulty in this debate is that most reports subscribe to a very broad definition of "torture". This is a deliberate strategy of administration critics, who want to state their case as strongly as possible. Thus exposure to loud music becomes "torture", which grabs headlines at the expense of cheapening the word every time it is used.

In response, apologists can pretend that all the torture is of this ilk. Then can even mix innocent-seeming methods in with the mere annoyances, thus cheapening them by association. An example is the practice of chaining prisoners to the floor. This doesn't sound awful -- we can imagine being chained to a floor without immediately cringing -- but being chained to a floor for days on end is a qualitatively different experience. You cannot straighten or stretch your limbs, and they inevitably cramp, one by one, and you can do nothing about it; and they remain cramped until the muscles are too exhausted to contract. Just as Tom Friedman ignores the reality of UN abuses, because he does not think behind the anodyne phrases used in the press to imagine the reality of a thirteen-year-old black girl sitting on a dirt floor crying between blow jobs, so Mr. Lileks has steered his own imagination away from reality.

As Mr. Djerejian notes, a blank check for torture, or even an indulgent wink at what has already occurred, should be outside the bounds of reasonable conservatism. But we must remain in an impure reality, with enemies whose goal is stealthy preparation for mass murder. We do not have the option of eschewing torture in its current, too-inclusive definition. What is needed is a statement of policy for treatment of illegal combatants, detailing the coercions to which they may and may not be subjected. It will be an ugly document, but it will improve what is now an ugly reality. By explicitly providing less protection than the Geneva Convention grants to uniformed combatants, we will preserve the Convention's incentives which help to protect civilians. By repudiating many forms of torture, we will better control what is done in our names. And a somewhat permissive document, which does not guarantee these killers an immunity from interrogation, could also be adopted as policy by allies whose human rights record falls far below our own, thus helping make a more humane world.

[Update 27 June: Mr. Djerejian is compiling, to unclear ends, a "conscience caucus" of those serious about torture-related issues.]