Paul Waldman makes a very good point in challenging apologias for torture during the Bush presidency: arguments such as that the use of waterboarding wasn't torture because it would always be discontinued when... 'the detainee became compliant'. Waldman goes on:
Here's the question I've never heard someone like [CIA officer Jose] Rodriguez answer: Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn't include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here's the definition of torture you'd think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession. That's not too hard to understand. The point is to create such agony that the subject will do anything, including give you information he'd prefer not to give you, to make the suffering stop. That's the purpose of waterboarding, that's the purpose of sleep deprivation (which, by the way, has been described by those subjected to it in places like the Soviet gulag to be worse than any physical pain they had ever experienced), and that's the purpose of stress positions. The "enhanced" techniques that were used weren't meant to trick detainees or win them over, they were meant to make them suffer until they begged for mercy.
Waldman's central point here is on the ball: if 'infliction of extreme suffering' isn't central to the torture apologist's definition of torture, where is his or her alternative definition?
I would demur, however, at Waldman's specification 'for the purpose of extracting information or a confession'. This is too restrictive, and I don't know why he includes it. The definition in the UN Torture convention is wider:
... torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind...
The UN definition not only includes further aims than the extraction of information; it doesn't treat the list of them as exhaustive, since it says only 'such purposes as'. The Tokyo Declaration (1975), 'Guidelines for Physicians Concerning Torture...', goes even further than this, defining torture as 'the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason' (my italics). I'm assuming that the word 'wanton' here protects this very broad definition from unwittingly making remedial but pain-involving medical procedures a form of torture, but in any case to limit the meaning of torture in the way that Waldman does (perhaps merely on the fly and without realizing it) would entail, for example, that torture-type procedures used to terrorize a population wouldn't be torture. I can't think of any justification for so limiting the definition of the word. (Via Andrew.)