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Random Thoughts on Torture: Letting the Fly Out of the Fly Bottle

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Philosophers are particularly good at untangling unclear concepts; they are experienced at the task of formulating problems clearly and logically; they are ready to unmask the hidden presuppositions underlying a particular formulation. This is the kind of work Wittgenstein describes as "letting the fly out of the fly bottle"; it is what J. L. Austin does so well in "Three Ways of Spilling Ink." Drawing distinctions and formulating ideas clearly — these are core intellectual tools, and they lie at the root of philosophy Understanding Society.

Everyone would agree that torture is deplorable, perhaps the most abominable in human behavior. Are there circumstances, however, under which it might be justifiable or permissible?

That’s one important question which seems to exercise the finest minds of late, both on the national stage and our little microcosm here on BC. A further-reaching question perhaps, though rarely if ever asked, might be put thus: Do the very same acts, which under normal circumstances would undoubtedly constitute “torture,” deserve this most abhorrent of epithets when performed under circumstances or conditions that are, by anyone’s estimation, unusual?

Consider the following, rather astute observation to serve as our point of departure:

"If we look at torture in civilian life we never see cases where torture is employed to elicit information. Torture is employed for personal amusement by twisted personalities."

In a sense, the aforementioned remark hits the nail on the head. It comes awfully close to what Wittgenstein called a “grammatical remark,” a remark whose express purpose was to elucidate the key concept (torture). In the first part, we learn that under normal circumstances, (civilian life), torture rarely has anything to do with eliciting information; in the second, that it’s associated most often with “twisted personalities.”

The notion of cruelty that comes to mind first and foremost, is intentional cruelty, cruelty to animals being one example. The act seems to serve no discernible purpose other than to satisfy one’s sadistic impulses and feed the crazed personality. That’s the core of the concept as far as I’m concerned: the association of torture with cruelty and the connotation of the term, only confirms that. Torture is a taboo – more of a taboo perhaps, than incest, rape, even murder.

It would seem convenient, therefore, to leave matters at that,  arguing  that’s the purpose behind the strongest possible language and its highly evocative quality: namely, to guard against any and all instances or incidences of torture under “normal” circumstances.


But this cannot be the truth or the whole truth, since it would mean a near-total misuse of an otherwise perfectly functional moral language: for it’s not morality or moral rebuke that are likely to be effective in preventing someone from pursuing their perverted inclinations to acts of cruelty and the like, but therapy, or lock & key . All of which seems to suggest that the intentionally strong language associated with such terms as cruelty or torture is designed with an entirely different purpose in mind; to deal with extraordinary cases.

What cases, one might ask. Precisely the kind of cases excluded from consideration in the first part of the subject remark – i.e., “where torture is [being] employed to elicit information.” Indeed, it’s only because anything that even smacks of torture or cruelty is an utter abomination that extreme safeguards must be in place to prevent any such act,  not out of sickness, but for a reason, whatever the reason! And this brings us to our first question: Are there circumstances under which acts of torture might be permissible, let alone justifiable?  What sort of circumstances might they be?

Consider the following "ticking bomb" scenario (and its “milder” alternative):

An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, "You do what you have to do." And then take the responsibility.


The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

As far as I am concerned, both situations can be reduced to one: one life versus the many, and absolute knowledge versus knowledge that is imperfect, aren’t sufficient enough differences if getting bogged down with them would mean losing sight of the main point. And that point seems to be that one way or another, act we must. Lives are at stake, along with a reasonable assurance that direct action might prevent a catastrophe.

What Charles Krauthammer has done is to present us with linguistic incongruity. One way out of this incongruity (and the dilemma) is to put a different slant on things. Let’s call it “enhanced interrogation techniques,” EITs, for short, and a common term by now and escape thus the criticism that we’re engaging in torture.

The problem is that most of the acts subsumable under the more benign, EIT label, such as waterboarding for instance, are torture. And it wouldn’t help any to try to escape the dilemma by insisting that it’s not, for I could easily come up with far more abhorrent “techniques,” such as piercing one’s eyes or maiming them, the worst things you could possibly do to a human short of killing them – acts so abhorrent in fact that no one in their right mind, not even the staunchest defenders of waterboarding, would dare argue it’s not torture. And so we’re back to square one.

The linguistic incongruity I’m speaking of, and the dilemma, can be put thus: while it’s not unreasonable to engage in EIT, it’s definitely unreasonable to engage in torture. Torture, insofar as our common understanding of the term goes, is never reasonable.

Bear in mind now that the injunction against torture, the very force of the term, the reason why it carries such a negative connotation, is not to dissuade the sickos. God knows we’ve got plenty of them, and lock & key or therapy is the only solution. Quite the contrary, the raison d’être for the injunction concerns ordinary folk, none of whom have either a predisposition for or the propensity to engage in violent acts against another human in order to satisfy their sadistic impulses. It’s directed to you and me and all reasonable people,  and it's against the idea of torture as a method, a means of eliciting information, a means to an end which, by all reasonable standards, is not only justified but right.

“Be careful” is what the injunction says. And if you think you must resort to torture in order to prevent a greater evil, you had better be certain it’s absolutely necessary because the means rarely justify the ends. People have been known to go wrong here, and absolute certainty is a must. Which, again, points to our dilemma:the incongruity of not being able to reconcile torture with reasonableness; the situation seems to demand it and yet — it doesn’t seem right.

I have a proposal to make. Though on the right track, Krauthammer doesn’t go far enough. He’s willing to live with the linguistic incongruity in question for he does speak, of "no-torture rule” exceptions. Well, I’m not! Why not go the full mile and say that the same acts which under ordinary circumstances would definitely constitute,  torture are  not torture under circumstances which are extraordinary?

A radical proposal, you say? Perhaps. But consider the pitfalls inherent in judging any situation or any act in terms of objective facts alone. A perjury, for instance, is not a lie, if for no other reason than that it’s enunciated in a court of law and under oath: it may earn you a jail sentence, whereas lies are commonplace and carry no penalty whatever,  except possible disapproval. Indeed, we even make allowances for lies when speaking of white lies.

And the same goes, I daresay, for involuntary manslaughter, whether due to negligence or recklessness, or killing in self-defense (justifiable homicide). Both are different from murder which, in turn, is different still from unlawful homicide. Needless to say, assassination, or targeted killing, is another thing entirely.

You might want to dismiss these examples as irrelevant, think of them as legal niceties, and you’d be right, to a point, because there is this tendency in legal thinking to go overboard at times and make distinctions without a difference. Let me assure you, however, that’s not the case here. A person’s future is at stake, whether they’ll be charged or not, not to mention their sentence. These aren’t trivial matters, and the language, legal or otherwise, is doing its proper work, just like it’s supposed to.

It’s axiomatic therefore that the intent behind the act, the circumstances surrounding it, all things large or small, are more pertinent when it comes to determining its nature and what comes with it, than its external, objective parameters. Things aren’t always what they seem, and our language, tries to keep track of the relevant differences, if only to keep us honest.

How does this relate to the subject matter at hand, the apparent or would-be acts of torture, the exact definition, the kind of acts which are permissible as well as those which are not, even the morality of it all?  This, I’m afraid, I’m not qualified to say. But what I can and will say is that the subject matter of torture remains in that shadowy and ill-defined area of linguistic incongruity, and it will remain so, unless of course we come up with a better term for it than “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Come to think of it, it’s not even English.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Jeannie Danna

    The danger with torture sanctioned by the government is that once this line is crossed where does it end? Can they water-board, pull out fingernails one by one with a pair of pliers or maybe implant electrodes into your brain to make you talk ? Torture, enhanced or otherwise, is never justified period!

  • Maurice


    it is always fun to read your posts! I can tell you spend a lot of time on them and I enjoy your use of language.

    I have commented on this topic before and my point was that some would consider being forced to listen to Mariah Carey torture. I torture myself regularly by listening to NPR. I do disagree with your statement that torture implies that the torturer enjoys it. That is like saying the gynocologist is a pervert! It is his job to look up hoohoo’s and that is what he is trained to do.

    If we know we have a person that clearly has information about am impending attack then I think it is fine for trained professionals to do their job and extract that information.

    BTW you have a typo on page 3 (lieswhen).

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Thanks, Maurice. Hopefully Clavos will correct it. Also, the first two paragraphs are part of a citation, and I’m not quite certain whether the formatting indicates that with sufficient clarity.

    First off, it’s a thought-experiment of sorts. And secondly, it would be impossible to examine all possible cases, so I focused on what I thought was a fairly standard “definition.”

    You’re right, perhaps, in that “enjoyment” may not always be part of the picture – did I say it or imply it somewhere (and where)?

    It’s a touchy issue? Does a sadist enjoy inflicting pain?

    Perhaps you can help me here.

  • Mar k

    Here’s another’s thought experiment that will serve as my comment.

  • Bliffle

    “If we know we have a person that clearly has information about am impending attack then I think it is fine for trained professionals to do their job and extract that information.”

    I have three objections to this statement:

    1-how do we CLEARLY KNOW that a person has this knowledge? So far, I have not seen evidence that this has ever happened. Our human judgements are so often wrong that I think this antecedent is invalid. Witnesses in murder cases have positively identified someone as a murderer, only to be proven wrong, hopefully before the guy gets the chair.

    2-“trained professionals” is also faulty. How do we know someone is a trained professional? Do we have a Civil Service test for torture? Do we have Civil Service pay grades for torturers at various levels of proficiency?

    History indicates that tortures are most often performed by rank amateurs who just want to get their jollies. Witness Abu Graib, where EVERYONE says that the tortures were done by low level idiots.

    3-how can you trust any info gained from torture? The obvious countermeasure of the enemy is to mislead the prisoner aforehand with bogosity that will lead any torturer astray.

  • Maurice

    The notion of cruelty that comes to mind first and foremost, is intentional cruelty, cruelty to animals being one example. The act seems to serve no discernible purpose other than to satisfy one’s sadistic impulses and feed the crazed personality. That’s the core of the concept as far as I’m concerned: the association of torture with cruelty and the connotation of the term, only confirms that.”

    The quote above more than implies your belief that the torturer enjoys torturing. I have to agree with your point about it being a touchy issue.

    My question is always when does torture becomes torture. For example I love Lee Ritenour but some people would consider it torture to have to listen to hours and hours of excellent jazz guitar playing. Some people love to go to church. That to me would be the most exquisite form of torture.

    Is it torture if the body is unharmed but the mind is uncomfortable?

  • Clavos

    Is it torture if the body is unharmed but the mind is uncomfortable?

    That could well be a description of some of the most effective torture, Maurice.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful


    For an act to be torture there has to be the deliberate intent to inflict pain. Listening to jazz guitar (or Kenny G*), sitting through the interminable drone of a preacher’s sermon or watching a World Cup match between Ukraine and Bulgaria may be unbearably tedious for some, but any torture involved is self-inflicted. You can always walk out.

    (Good to see you back, BTW. How are your boys doing?)

    * I just thought we hadn’t heard from the man’s assistant in a while. Time to draw him out of the woodwind… er, woodwork, methinks.

  • Clavos

    Trying to concoct a new kind of torture, Doc?

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    No, I think Kenny G is quite capable of doing that on his own…


  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Your argument is flawed. People call child molesters sick and twisted. They say the same thing about serial killers, spouse-beaters, rapists. What is that language defending or protecting against? That there is no equivalent to ‘interrogation purposes’ for you to fit into your puzzle is a meaningless red herring. It’s merely an extra condition that doesn’t apply. However I could use rape and do the same thing.

    Historically, males in war would rape the women of their enemy to defile their enemy’s ‘property’ and cause ego damage.

    Does this mean that when people refer to a rapist as sick and twisted the language is being used to prevent this historical even from recurring?

    The language of your torture scheme does not have to have developed in any different way than the language against any other abhorrent acts. In fact it’s more likely it developed the same way–as description not protection.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    On another note, if torture needs a new word according to how is used, then you need to name it something that takes into account that it is not a means of extracting information to any reasonable person. It is a justified act of sadism. Name it accordingly.

    To discuss the ticking time bomb and the other scenario there as if they are accepted, discredits, imo. By using those scenarios and not even presenting the counter-arguments, you are accepting the dictates of authority for no other reason than it is authority.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy, #12:

    Let’s change it a bit. Say the police intercepted one of the kindnappers of your baby daughter or a loved one (while the rest of the team is unaware of the fact yet).
    So my question is – what measure(s) you’d deem justifiable in order to learn about the overall plan, the whereabouts of where they’re to meet, the location where the victim would be held, etc. etc?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Maurice, #6:

    I’m not certain whether identification of CERTAIN cases of torture as springing from sadistic impulses necessarily carried the implication of enjoyment. The statement was meant as nothing more than to provide such an identification (again, only of certain kind of cases) without delving into “the enjoyment” part. At least I didn’t mean to.

    I suppose much turns here on whether the sadist enjoys what they’re doing to another and whether “enjoyment” is the right term. I’d tend to think there is a certain high (or a thrill, if you like); and that might go for the masochist as well. However, even here we must be careful I think not to over-generalize.

    BTW, I think that Doc’s got it right in #8 when he speaks of “deliberate intent to inflict pain.” Which is one reason why I, too, spoke of “intentional cruelty” rather than just cruelty (as when perhaps we’re doing it to another, say a loved one, inadvertently): a rather weak case, I admit, for “inadvertent cruelty” but still, a distinction has got to be made.

    Which raised another interesting set of points:

    1) to what extent is the sadist acting deliberately (freely, intentionally, and with full awareness – I presume “aspects of a fully-deliberate action – if he’s acting out of the depths of his dark and unexamined personality?

    2) “the deliberate intent to inflict pain” – when taken at its fully intended meaning -would therefore seem more clearly applicable to cases in which there is an underlying purposed (extracting information being one such reason and purpose). Which, again, seems to place the sadist example in a kind of nether region in that the sadist’s acts serve no discernible purpose (unless we choose to extent the definition of “purpose” to include irrational acts and/or satisfying perverted drives.)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Mark, #4:

    It’s not what I think it is, is it, Mark?
    Interesting how the theme changes depending on whether you’re looking at it from afar or close-up. And then I looked at the title, and it was confirmed,

  • Ruvy


    Reading these interminable articles on torture is torture for me. It’s not brutality, of course – or even bestiality. These articles are more like chthonic creatures that appear, do their harm, and go away after 5.000 meaningless comments.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, Ruvy. This one had a conceptual slant rather than arguing on the basis of sheer emotions. If you don’t appreciate what I was trying to do here, it just shows we have way different mindsets. Which ain’t bad.

    It’s good the world is made up of all kinds of people. Variety is a spice of life, as they say.

  • Jeannie Danna

    (It’s good the world is made up of all kinds of people. Variety is a spice of life, as they say.) I agree!…:)

  • http://theugliestamerican.blogspot.com Andy Marsh

    You do have a way with words Roger! I read your article and I can’t tell if you’re for EIT’s or against them. I did enjoy reading it though. You have a way of increasing my vocabulary! Dictionary.com probably loves all the extra hits!

    My feeling on it all is like this. I’m pretty sure most of you have seen the old Dirty Harry movies. There’s a scene in one of them when Harry’s chased down the Zodiac killer and shot him in the leg. He’s trying to find out where a little girl is that this creep has abducted and Harry steps on his leg right at the bullet hole until the creep gives up the info.

    I remember cheering for Harry the first time I saw this scene.

    It had to be torture, didn’t it? Did Harry enjoy it? Probably! Was it necessary? Apparently not, the girl was already dead when they found her. But Harry didn’t know that at the time. Was it justified? You may not think so, but I sure do!

    Would I have done the same thing in the same situation? Hell yeah! And if it was one of my daughters it would’ve been worse!

    It’s easy to throw down the moral gauntlet and say torture is never justified. I say you’d sing a different tune if they were waterboarding someone that had a loved one of yours held prisoner some where, or was getting ready to blow up your family and friends.

    I think it’s also much easier to look back 8 years and say, did we really need to do that?

    And I like the line in comment #1 – “Torture enhanced or otherwise.” What’s enhanced torture? Do they waterboard you with Perrier?

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    …what measure(s) you’d deem justifiable in order to learn about the overall plan, the whereabouts of where they’re to meet, the location where the victim would be held, etc. etc?

    The ones that are most likely to work. I’ve looked at the evidence. It suggests that non-torture methods reveal more valid information. It suggests that torturing people can lead to erroneous information and waste vital time. In fact erroneous torture information, is one of the justifications that was used to start the war in Iraq. I am not sure how much worse a result one could get as far as information obtained and put to use. That’s sort of my point after all, when I say the only people who think torture could work to provide intelligence are the ones who go by the opinion of authority without looking at any further evidence.

    In your parlance, I would say your opinion is based on emotion not reason. In my parlance I would say that your opinion is based on indoctrinated attitudes of culture which make you unlikely to look for any other evidence beyond what ‘appears’ reasonable to you based on what you were trained to expect as reasonable. That is, it just makes sense, it seems so evident, so you don’t question it.

    The problem is, when you begin looking more closely at things that ‘just seem to make sense’ you discover that much is not what you would intuitively expect it to be if your intuition has developed as a part of a social construct.

    No one voice can ever have all the truth there is or all the perspectives. The culture consists of many voices–each with a view, each with information the others might not see, the dominant culture is nothing more than one of these voices which has co-opted all the media of communication. It’s one view is propagated like this.

    I don’t know what to say to people who are intelligent yet don’t automatically hold it suspect and question its tenets. I am not sure what good self-examination is or does if we are only examining illusions and reorganizing them. Self-examination requires challenging ideas that we accept as givens. It requires that we fight and struggle to see if we developed these ideas on our own or we just believe them because we have been exposed to a constant repeated exposure 24/7 all our lives from the time we can look around.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski


    Before digesting the whole of your long comment, let me say it outright: this piece is through-and-through experimental – again, a thought-experiment as I said it up the thread. Don’t you see the clues?

    I believe I stated within the article that “torture is never reasonable.” And there I followed it with a conditional: “If doing X, Y, or Z to somewhat IS reasonable, then it cannot be torture.”

    All along, besides, I was speaking of “linguistic incongruity.” And for as long as there exist this incongruity, something is wrong and fishy.

    So not only were my conclusions posted in terms of the conditional (or the hypothetical, if you like). At the very end, I admit that the incongruity has not been resolved. And that’s our language telling us something is wrong. (The moral of the article.)

    As to your other major point – “eliciting information” – you’re probably right. In fact, the precedent used by the U.S. to resort to EITs is taken from the playbook of the Chinese interrogators during the Korean conflict – and the purpose was not to elicit information (for it’s doubtful whether those who were kept in the captivity as POWs had any such) but rather for the express purpose of having the Americans go on radio and TV and denounce their country for propaganda purposes. And they were successful to that extent. In fact, I believe I’m correct that right after the Korean conflict, we issued UCMJ – as to what a POW may rightly disclose, to prevent any such from happening in the future. And I do agree that if eliciting information is the object of the interrogation, than there surely are more reliable methods than resorting to torture.

    A good line from Elizabeth (with Cate Blanchett) – You can get anyone to say anything under torture.

    So anyway, my main object was trying to get at the logic of the term, to flesh it out to the extent possible

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Andy, #19.

    Have just seen your comment and thank you. First, I was trying to examine the concept, bring it into the open. And you’re right. So much depends on the right kind of example. The Dirty Harry movie may well be one. I’ll have to rethink it.

  • Doug Hunter

    I think the historical baggage associated with the word torture makes it difficult to assess it’s use in modern society. Torture once meant inserting a blunt pole in your anus and standing you up to slowly slide down as you died over a period of days while frightened villagers looked on and promised to do anything the government asked if they wouldn’t receive the same fate. That or slowly pulling your intestines out and letting insects/animals feed on them until you died in septic shock of your own filth. Or drawing and quartering, the rack, the wheel, the keep, scaphism, etc. (thank God for the French invention of the merciful quillotine)

    By comparison, what we do today is child’s play. Clearly there are multiple levels of torture. Some, like confinement in prison, have been accepted as a necessary evil. Others, like anal impalement, have been roundly condemned. Is there anything in the middle to argue over? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume so.

    I personally don’t think there are enough realistic scenarios where using controversial techniques might produce something positive to warrant the harm of having them sanctioned. We’re the good guys, remember. We either treat them with dignity and respect or blow the hell out of them at a safe distance.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski


    “I personally don’t think there are enough realistic scenarios where using controversial techniques might produce something positive to warrant the harm of having them sanctioned.”

    Great point. It all turns on being to come up with a credible example. Andy (see above) brought up an episode from “The Dirty Harry.” If you’ve seen the two latest James Bond flicks, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, there are also possibly credible episodes.

    By and large, however, if eliciting information is the object, then I’m certain there are more effective methods than torture. And as I speak of the Chinese interrogators during the Korean conflict, see above, the object was different.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Here’s one example of “other than torture” means from Tom Clancy’s novel, and I quote:

    A scene from “The Cardinal of the Kremlin,” by Tom Clancy, comes to mind. It’s a new KGB, more humane, above such methods of extracting information as torture, waterboarding, and whatnot. Sensory deprivation is the latest thing. They put you in a tank for a day or two, and you’re floating. No sense of gravity to tell which side is up or down, no bodily movements to orient yourself by. You’re in total darkness, deprived besides of all sound except perhaps the beating of your own heart; and after a while, even of that you’re not certain. Yet your mind keeps on racing as never before and your imagination is at its most active, craving for input, any input, but none is forthcoming. You experience nothing except your own disembodied self. Soon enough, even this you begin to doubt. Am I dead or alive, in heaven or in hell? Any sensation, even excruciating pain, would be better, infinitely better and more welcome, than the state you’re in. And so it was with Svetlana:

    “She was lying on a gurney when he got there, the wetsuit already taken off. He sat beside the unconscious form and held her hand as the technician jabbed her with a mild stimulant. She was a pretty one, the doctor thought as her breathing picked up. He waved the technician out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.

    “Hello, Svetlana,” he said in his gentlest voice. The blue eyes opened, saw the lights on the ceiling, and the walls. Then her head turned toward him.

    He knew he was indulging himself, but he’d worked long into the night and the next day on this case, and this was probably the most important application of his program to date. The naked woman leaped off the table into his arms and nearly strangled him with a hug. It wasn’t particularly because he was good-looking, the doctor knew, just that he was a human being, and she wanted to touch one. Her body was still slick with oil as her tears fell on his white laboratory coat. She would never commit another crime against the State, not after this. It was too bad that she’d have to go to a labor camp. Such a waste, he thought as he examined her. Perhaps he could do something about that. After ten minutes, she was sedated again, and he left her asleep.” As I Lay Dying.

  • Maurice

    Roger #14

    I think it is indicative of your thought process. For example my first analogous thought of torture would not be cruelty but required action that brings about a desired result. For example a drill sergeant would appear to the outsider to be cruel and perhaps even enjoy debasing his recruits. Whether he enjoys it or not he is really just trying to accomplish a goal. I would compare the professional interrogator to the drill sergeant and not the sadist.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy


    I’m not surprised by that though process. It’s pretty typical.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Let’s talk.

    I was operating with a different paradigm in mind, and I quote:

    “If we look at torture in civilian life we never see cases where torture is employed to elicit information. Torture is employed for personal amusement by twisted personalities.” (page 1)

    Whether the above (i.e., cases of torture in civilian life) constitute the main core of the concept, I’m not yet prepared to say. But you would agree, wouldn’t you, that instances of sadism, intentional/deliberate cruelty, also form a significant number of cases. Wouldn’t you?

    Why I found the subject remark of interest -and capable of being milked – was that it offered a fairly clear contrast, I think, between torturing without a purpose as opposed to cases when EITs are being employed with some specific purpose in mind (eliciting information possibly being one example).

    I’m not quite convinced of your drill sergeant example. Are some of the rough training techniques that used to be in effect, remember, as part of the Marine training torture. They were inappropriate and way beyond the pale – and the guilty party was punished (Jack Nicholson’s movie, e.g., but there were also real incidences when some of the recruits had died) but were they instances of torture? I’m not certain I’be be prepared to say that. Perhaps you’d have to provide much more detail to make your example a viable one.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Thanks for the dig, Cindy. I doubt whether Maurice had meant it in quite the same way in which you put it. At least I didn’t take it that way. But your comment leaves no doubt in my mind. But that’s OK. I’m used to it by now.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    though = thought (27)

    Hey Roger,

    I think you might have information I need. If I understand what you say in your article, then language would change to accommodate the acceptance of something previously unacceptable. So, for something like torture to be accepted, it would require a change in the language–a new word to remove it from its previous context?

    Okay, is that close at all?

    This seems to fit with my idea that language is modified by dominant culture to facilitate its ends. So, redefining things creates conceptual differences. Something that is unacceptable can be made into something acceptable (over time and through generations and often sooner).

    That is why I said I don’t like to think of things as other than what they are–I reject new words that attempt to modify perception so, and keep the original meaning.

    If I understood, or was close in my first paragraph, then I need more information about this. It would provide another viewpoint on something I think is important.

  • Doug Hunter

    The most likely scenario in which torture would work is if you had a long window and a clearly defined piece of information you were looking for. For example, you were torturing a person about where they hid their treasure and didn’t need to find it by any certain date. If they lied you could simply check where they told you and increase the level of torture progressively until they broke.

    In the terrorist fighting world, something like that rarely comes up. Maybe you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for so they reveal a minor plot yet keep the major one concealed. Usually you don’t have a long time horizon because the plan will either be carried out or remaining terrorist members will change plans knowing you may have information for the person you have captured.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski


    “So, for something like torture to be accepted, it would require a change in the language–a new word to remove it from its previous context?”

    It’s not exactly how it works – though of course there’ll always be those who coin buzz words and doublespeak (to use Orwell’s term) for their own propaganda purposes. But natural languages are naturally resistant to such perverted attempts – as we can always (if we care to pay attention, of course) recognize “doublespeak” and all such from the real McCoy.

    And it’s especially true when the attempted linguistic revisions (contrast that now with the natural evolution of language) touch upon the area of morals. “Torture is never reasonable” – doesn’t that just sound very right to the ear? – and I’d tend to agree that there are no exceptions. So for as long as the linguistic incongruity persists (as when one someone would argue, for example, for reasonableness of torture), it’s a clear sign that something doesn’t jibe and there’s a problem.

    I was only exploring the concept, that’s all.

  • Doug Hunter

    “This seems to fit with my idea that language is modified by dominant culture to facilitate its ends.”

    Everyone (including you) tries to do it; only the dominant culture succeeds. You will pick and choose your words purposefully selecting the most negative descriptions for your enemies and describig you own positions in the most positive light possible.

  • Maurice


    not sure why you are “unconvinced” with my drill sergeant example..? I was trying to get the point across that people sometimes respond to negative treatment. I am not sure of your reference to a movie? Seems like a bad idea to base your opinion on a work of fiction.

    I think all of us can recall a time when we were tested by a negative situation. I remember in college being told by my professor that 66% of us would fail his class. It was the kind of torture of the mind that motivated me to try harder. Does that make sense?

    One other example of my thought process. I am a gun owner and would use it to defend my family. I had a buddy in Detroit that was horrified at the prospect to gun use and violence in general. I asked him if he would use a gun if someone had a hold of his wife and threatened her life. He said he absolutely would not use the gun. I am a caring and feeling person but I would kill someone that threatened my wife and children. I think torture used correctly in the hands of professionals to save the innocent is appropriate and necessary.

  • Maurice

    Dr. Dreadful,

    it is good to be bad. The only reason is I was recently laid off from Micron Technology and now am at home with time on my hands. My boys are doing much better. Both are on probation and trying to find jobs. NA is a big influence on both of them and it helps that I am home all day to monitor their activities.

  • Maurice

    Crap! Good to be “back”! Not “bad”!

    Okay, maybe I am bad….

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski


    No argument with what you say that people respond to ill-treatment. Everyone has a breaking point, they say. So that’s not at issue. What’s more at issue, I think, is whether the information obtained via these methods are reliable or whether they could not be obtained by different techniques. Again, don’t forget the main reasons why the Chinese used it on American GIs in Korea – not for any information but for propaganda purposes.

    I think it’s little easier to think about it when you reduce it to the individual level, as when your loved ones are in jeopardy (although it’s possible that some such thinking might extend to averting a mass catastrophe). But it all turns, as I say, on being able to come up with a credible example.

    That’s why I don’t understand why you discount films or fiction. A novelist are known for their imagination. And just because it’s not drawn from real life is no reason why credible fictional situations can’t occur in real-life situations. If it’s conceivable, then it can happen.

    As to your drill sergeant example, I don’t think it’s drastic enough for my taste. Same with the examples you cite from school. I think they trivialize the term.

  • Maurice


    honestly I am not trying to trivialize. What I am trying to do is provide examples that illustrate from 0-100 the different levels of torture. I quit watching TV back in 1998 because I found it torturous. Back when I did watch TV there was an episode of Outer Limits where a hippie guy kills himself and goes to hell. He is all excited by the prospect of being tortured by fire and the devil himself. Instead he is put in a room with some middle aged tourists and forced to watch their slide show from their latest vacation. Ahhhhhhhhhh!

    Torture can vary from uncomfortable (0-10) to near death (90-100). What I am wondering is what level do we tolerate in which situations. For example the Japanese had the WWII soldiers squat on their haunches for long periods of time. This was not torture in the minds of the Japanese because that was their accustomed waiting position. The GI’s interpreted it as a mild form of torture. I would consider this the 0-10 level of torture even if unintentional. What the Germans did to the Jews is the 90-100 level.

    So now what is our acceptable level?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I understand what you’re doing, Maurice, and I wasn’t talking about you trying to trivialize it, only of your example.

    Read the bracketed part from CK’s article (as per the article link), a part which I omitted:

    “Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding. (To call some of the other “enhanced interrogation” techniques — face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space — torture is to empty the word of any meaning.)”

    That’s why I don’t want to engage in discussion concerning gradations – to as “not to empty the word of any meaning,” if you know what I mean, because once you do, it’s a slippery slope. In short, I want to keep the concept’s content as full and pregnant as possible – precisely because it is intended to serve as the most severe kind of injunction.

    Let’s just say there is a certain threshold beyond which it’s beyond interrogation. Why can’t you be comfortable with that?

    And again, I know you mean it lightheartedly, but seriously now, don’t bring up the TV. As Doc commented rather astutely up the thread, you don’t have to watch it.

  • Arch Conservative

    Torturing jihadi scumbags is kind like making sausage. You don’t want to talk about it, see it happening, or even necessarily know that it’s going on, but you’re pretty happy to partake of the end results.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Very clever analogy, Archie. But if you do know what goes into the sausage, why would you want to eat it?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy, #11:

    Number 1: “Historically, males in war would rape the women of their enemy to defile their enemy’s ‘property’ and cause ego damage. Does this mean that when people refer to a rapist as sick and twisted the language is being used to prevent this historical even from recurring?”

    No! The function here is not to protect, only to describe – and by virtue of that description, to exclude all nonesuch as the kinds of people with respect to whom moral language and argument would be useless. (I did speak of this in the article when I say that moral rebuke, etc., is not effective with “the sickos” but therapy and/or lock & key). And BTW, this follows an old tradition when the ancient Greeks, for instance, spoke of “freaks of nature.” And with respect to freaks of nature, the laws of nature – reason, logic, morality – do not apply (because they’re freaks and in that sense, outside the range of humanity.

    Number 2: “The language of your torture scheme does not have to have developed in any different way than the language against any other abhorrent acts. In fact it’s more likely it developed the same way–as description not protection.”

    Correct as to the first sentence. Even moral language has its roots in function – to protect the society. So the process is most likely the same as to the origins and subsequent development – although one can’t discount variations as to the kinds of acts, because they all have different logic (and the corresponding language reflects that).

    But even in its pre-moral, more fundamental stage, it goes beyond description because of the function (again, to protect the society and/or its members); and once it acquires full moral status (which is when we’ve all but forgotten its functionally-based origins), it serves then not just as a description but primarily as a protection. In fact, the primary purpose of moral language, when fully developed, is to prevent wrongdoings (and not just to describe the act). Which is why the second proposition is only partly correct.

    Again, it goes without saying that moral language is not effective with “the sickos” because they are sickos.

    And torture, being an abhorrent act, is properly represented by equally strong moral language mitigating against it. (I believe I made that point in the article also.)

    I’ll get to your other comments later.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    29 – Roger,

    The dig was for Maurice, not you. It related specifically to this comment he made:

    For example my first analogous thought of torture would not be cruelty but required action that brings about a desired result.

    That sounds like a typical attitude to me. Sorry, I reread and realized that wasn’t clear.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Sorry, Cindy. I misunderstood it then.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    “No! The function here is not to protect, only to describe…”

    “But even in its pre-moral, more fundamental stage, it goes beyond description because of the function (again, to protect the society and/or its members)”

    You seem to be saying two different things. When I imply your idea that the function of language might be to protect would need to be carried over in the analogy I made–you correct me and say it’s not for protection, only for description.

    When I suggest it might not be for protection, you then say it is.

    I am confused about what exactly you think.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Two different cases here, Cindy.

    A) with respect to the freaks, moral language is of no effect; and we simply speak to their pathological condition

    B) With respect to all others, “normal” human beings, moral language and terms of approbation work and it’s to them that it’s directed.

    The functions of language are multivarious – and it being a description in some cases doesn’t preclude it from being an injunction in others. And one could keep on enumerating as many functions as there are purposes to which language is being put to use (human purposes) – like “performatives,” e.g., when you say “I do” during marriage ceremony, or “strike” when an umpire calls a pitch. Look up J. L. Austin on the performatives (How to do things with words,” or John Searle’s “Speech Acts.”

    The context and the intent of the speaker are primary consideration when it comes to determining which particular function is at work and to which particular purpose we say what we do.

    Wittgenstein: Thing of a tool box: a hammer, a sew, a screwdriver, all kinds of tools. Words are like tools and the meaning in any given situation (or incident of a linguistic act/utterance) is determined by our use of them, which in turn is determine by our purposes/intention.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Yes, Roger I believe I do understood you.

    I think the problem is you don’t see the idea of torture as being analogous with rape, where as I do. At this point, I think you’d have to explain why you don’t believe rape is analogous.

    Either you didn’t consider my context carefully or you did and you feel it doesn’t warrant the analogy.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I didn’t cover all your points yet.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Okay, in that case I’ll bbl (be back later).

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy, #47:

    “I think the problem is you don’t see the idea of torture as being analogous with rape, where as I do. At this point, I think you’d have to explain why you don’t believe rape is analogous.”

    I’m going to try to respond to this remark alone since I can’t seem to find the proper context in which the was first brought up. And if my response is inadequate, perhaps you’ll redirect me.

    So in what sense is “rape,” “torture,” and all manner of abhorrent acts analogous? I suppose one could include here all kinds of compulsive/obsessive “acts” and/or behavior – such a kleptomania (I admit, mild by comparison). I’m drawing a blank here, so perhaps you can help me.

    Well, for one thing, we regard it as “abhorrent,” but that’s only a part of the story. So is “burglary,” “highway robbery,”
    “criminal homicide,” again, you’re free to add on to this skimpy list. More importantly, however, there’s another point of similarity when it comes to the items first mentioned: it represents a compulsive/obsessive behavior. “Rape,” for instance, has been argued as stemming from one’s sense of inferiority and need to assert oneself – more an act of violence rather than arising out of the sexual impulse – and I’m restricting my remarks now to these kinds of cases (knowing full well that there are other cases which you mention, like during wartime).

    Well, the same is the case with sadism and all acts of intentional and/or deliberate cruelty. And I do consider “sadism” as more or less “defining” what I take to be “the core element of the concept of torture.”

    And so, in this particular respect, “rape” (in the restricted sense I’m considering it)
    and “torture” ARE analogous, and that respect is: obsessive/compulsive behavior.

    In what sense are they different. Well, I suggest one would be hard put to think of a viable example whereby rape is being used in to attain purposes that are extraneous to the act itself or the individual involved; and if you do, I’d be willing to reconsider my position.

    Torture, on the other hand, in addition to its primary (or perhaps primitive) meaning, which is to feed the sadistic impulse, has been known – I hope you don’t disagree – to be used for other, extraneous purposes: eliciting information, getting the person to do what we want them to do, and so on – and that’s regardless of whether one is a sadist or not. (In short, we could well imagine cases when sadism, again, as originally defined, is not part of the picture.)

    So here is the main point of disanalogy between the two: obsessive behavior vs. behavior/action that is purpose driven. Which is why the term torture carries so strong a negative connotation. And as I argue in my article, it’s not to dissuade the sickos but “reasonable people” from ever using it as a method – whatever the reason.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski
  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    The digest:

    “The NYT off-leads with an exclusive look at newly declassified documents and correspondence on the Justice Department’s views of torture. E-mails dating back to 2005 reveal that certain Justice Department lawyers who urged against the use of waterboarding and other controversial interrogation methods never questioned the legality of such tactics. The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility will release a report this summer on how the decision was made to allow enhanced interrogation methods. The critical period seems to have been between 2004 and ’05, around which time DOJ lawyer James B. Comey presciently warned that the issue would come back to haunt the department.”
    Slate Magazine

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy


    I am so sorry you took the time to write all that. I wish I realized you must have missed what I said in #11.

    Yes, #50, I did understand the rules you set and that is why I chose rape, not something else like child molesting for my analogy. I recognize not all heinous acts would fit. I understand how you distinguish the two types of acts. One as done by a deviant, another as done with an intent to achieve a purpose. I hold rape was actually used with an intent to achieve a military purpose.

    Please, if you could, reread #11 and tell me what you think.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski


    I think I covered all the objections in #11 except for this:

    “That there is no equivalent to ‘interrogation purposes’ for you to fit into your puzzle is a meaningless red herring. It’s merely an extra condition that doesn’t apply. However I could use rape and do the same thing.” Am I right?

    First off, I’d agree with you that rape may have been used as an instrument to undermine the enemy morale. One could go even further and claim that it may have been used to “deplete the enemy,” “change their loyalty,” and generally speaking, even to alter the balance of power. (Good example here: the “prima nocte” policy instituted by Henry the Longshanks (some claim it a myth) in Braveheart, for the purpose of minimizing the possibility of Scottish rebellion/opposition).

    So in the sense that rape can be thought of and used as a means to an end, it is true that it may be comparable to the idea of torture (when also so used).

    I don’t know what else follows from that, so perhaps you can rephrase your question now (in terms of the red herring thing you spoke of), in light of the progress we’ve made thus far. It would be easier for me to discern than the main point of your counter-argument.

  • Bliffle

    #26 – Maurice

    “…For example my first analogous thought of torture would not be cruelty but required action that brings about a desired result. ”

    I’m sure that Saddam thought the same when he gassed the Kurds. Dare I mention the holocaust and it’s Prime Mover?

    Words, words, words. Aren’t they wonderful? The most awful acts are de-fanged by bureaucratic bafflegab.

    Many years ago I read an article by the chief US interrogator in Vietnam, who was credited with very successful intelligence gathering from VC and NV soldiers. His most effective interrogation tool: ping pong!

  • Clavos

    His most effective interrogation tool: ping pong!

    He didn’t talk about pushing one Gook out of a chopper at 3,000 feet to make the others talk?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)


    I seem to recall having read somewhere that the technique to which you refer was called “aerial reconnaissance.” What might have been “ping pong?” Several possibilities come to mind. What are those spherical things one bats around with a ping-pong paddle? Such trivia often escape me.

    I shall now go and pray*.


    Please see definition at comment #106 here.

  • Clavos

    Say a prayer* for me, Dan(Miller).

    A heathen like me could use some prayer.*

    *As defined previously.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Lilith (the destroyer)


    But natural languages are naturally resistant to such perverted attempts – as we can always (if we care to pay attention, of course) recognize “doublespeak” and all such from the real McCoy.

    But, do many people really pay that much attention? Today’s doublespeak is tomorrows common description, no? If you control language you can influence how people think about things. Isn’t that a reason why government tries to control language in this way? (like George Carlin’s routine: (WWI) shell shock -> (WWII) battle fatigue -> (Korean war) operational exhaustion -> (Vietnam war) post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Isn’t this part of the natural development of language? If not, how do you conceive of this being different? As a child would I know it’s different if that’s what I learned to call something?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Good point, Lilith. It is a part of the “natural” development, as you say. But we still have the language of Shakespeare, for example, and that of other great novelists. You’re taking the notion of education out of the equation. So there are old and proven standards for comparison purposes. Plus, you seem to be assuming the general dumbing down of the populace – not an impossible scenario but quite a leap. Recall Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury,remember, books being burned, we had a little community where each person became a book: a far-fetched story, true, but not without a moral. More generally, perhaps, most of us at least (I’d like to believe) strife towards sense and light rather than nonsense and ignorance.

    On the foundational level, much in language reflects our practices. And in order for these practices to have a staying power and the corresponding longevity, they, too, must make sense. Sooner or later, practices either improve in time, become more refined, or become obsolete (if they fail to serve the purpose or make sense). And the same goes for the language relating to those practices.

    So praxis, ultimately, is the ground-zero so to speak which keeps the language honest.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “But, do many people really pay that much attention?”

    Maybe not! But buzz words and doublespeak will always be challenged (by some). You can’t get away with murder forever. Don’t underestimate native intelligence even among the uneducated. And as I said, all those who have no stake in self-deception (prompted by their selfish, narrowly conceived self-interest)naturally are attracted to light, not darkness.

    The BC community represents a rather skewed picture. Everyone is so keen on expressing their own pet theory because they know they can’t be taken to task.

    In real life, which is to say, face-to-face communications, the situation is nowhere as hopeless. There are supplemental tools at our disposal to change minds (and more importantly, hearts). And it does happen.

    Again, BC is an anomaly. One’s almost led to believe it’s a waste of time, unless of course the one and only motive is to hear oneself speak (or improve their writing skills).

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    While this site is still under construction, please direct all your comments to this or the preceding article(s) to my own weblog if you expect a response.