Sunday, December 18, 2005

Torture's shadow or a torture shadow-puppet?

The Washington Post Outlook section today featured a headline article from Vladimir Bukovsky, a resident of Cambridge, England and a man who spent 12 years in Soviet Prison. Like John McCain, he knows what torture is, having experienced it firsthand.

I am left bewildered, then, at his article that appears to confirm a belief that the United States condones of - approves of, even - torture in the interrogation of prisoners in the war on terror. The article, titled "Torture's Long Shadow", accepts as a proven conclusion that the US is OK with torture in the face of virtually every government agency saying we are not. The issue isn't whether the US condones of torture, it's what the US considers torture vs. what Mr. Bukovsky considers torture. Again, given his familiarity with real torture I'm amazed that he would consider the treatment given to the detainees at Gitmo and elsewhere to be tortuous.

Oh, and a personal note right up front. Mr. Burkovsky might consider it a clever literary device to refer to his readers as "comrade" but it's obvious he's trying to place anyone reading his stuff who might feel differently than he into the same category as the Soviet NKVD guards he writes of. Not a method noted for its success in persuading people. For the record, I reject the label and Mr. Burkovsky may direct it to his mirror if he likes.

The article tries on several occasions to equate treatment below that granted to lawful citizens of free democracies as torture. That's the whole problem with this debate, and he summed it up nicely in this paragraph:

::::::::As someone who has been on the receiving end of the "treatment" under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous. Long gone are the days when a torturer needed the nasty-looking tools displayed in the Tower of London. A simple prison bed is deadly if you remove the mattress and force a prisoner to sleep on the iron frame night after night after night. Or how about the "Chekist's handshake" so widely practiced under Stalin -- a firm squeeze of the victim's palm with a simple pencil inserted between his fingers? Very convenient, very simple. And how would you define leaving 2,000 inmates of a labor camp without dental service for months on end? Is it CID not to treat an excruciatingly painful toothache, or is it torture?::::::::

So, the part of the world who uses a bed to sleep on at night is "torturing" the significant part of the world's population that sleeps on the floor every night for their entire lives? I've slept on the ground under the stars personally. Was I tortured? Hardly. When my wife and I moved out here near DC *cough* years ago we slept on a hardwood floor for 3 nights running. Not the most pleasant experience but not torture, either.

And, excuse me, dental care? The reports of the Taliban and Saudi fighters captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan indicate that the dental care we provided for them was the first such any of them had received in their entire lives. And now withholding that is somehow torture? I'd wager a guess that most people on the planet have no access to what we'd refer to as dental care at all. That's not torture, that's called "life". To hold that up as an example of torture cheapens the term and insults those who have endured the real thing. People like, well, Mr. Burkovsky.

Of course, the United States has not withheld such care. Not that the article would leave you with that impression. Nor have they forced tubes up the noses of the captives, as Mr. Burkovsky describes, causing serious damage in the procedure. As for the sleep deprivation he speaks of, comparing what might have been done at Gitmo to the 10-days-with-no-sleep-at-all procedure used by Stalin's soldiers in the 1930's is ludicrous. It'd be laughable if the effect of such an accusation weren't so serious.

What it boils down to is this: While Mr. Burkovsky feels that any amount of "cruel, inhumane, or degrading (CID)" treatment is torture, there's a lot of us who simply disagree with his scope. It's the "D" part that causes me trouble. Cruel or inhuman treatment isn't condoned here and I stand side by side with Mr. Burkovsky on this. There's no room for electric shocks to the genitals or beating the soles of a person's feet with iron bars. To say nothing, of course, of feeding a person through an industrial shredder with his children looking on. But tossing the flag of an enemy over a man's shoulders or handling a book in a manner that man might not appreciate, or allowing a woman to be seen in attire he might not approve of isn't torture. The insistence that it is by those Mr. Burkovsky appears to sympathize with is what's causing the breakdown in this debate. Articles like his where America is accused of approving torture in the face of strong denials and where the "D" part of CID seems to get the most outrage don't help.