Tuesday , May 21 2024
Torture remains one of the most controversial words in English. Can we put it to rest and "let the fly out of the fly bottle?"

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

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.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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