Words, Standards and Torture: What's in a Name
Sunday, October 14 2007 @ 09:29 AM CDT
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
Tor · ture noun: the act of causing great physical or mental pain in order to persuade someone to do something or to give information, or as an act of cruelty to a person or animal - Cambridge Dictionaries OnlineFor the purposes of this Convention, the term 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,...or intimidating or coercing him or a third person,...when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. - Part I, Article 1, Section 1, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
On October 4, the New York Times broke the story that the US Justice Department had issued secret legal opinions approving interrogation techniques such as simulated drowning, concluding that such practices did not meet the legal definition of torture. On October 7, the Times ran an editorial titled On Torture and American Values. The piece read in part as follows:
Once upon a time, it was the United States that urged all nations to obey the letter and the spirit of international treaties and protect human rights and liberties. American leaders denounced secret prisons where people were held without charges, tortured and killed. And the people in much of the world, if not their governments, respected the United States for its values.
The Bush administration has dishonored that history and squandered that respect. As an article on this newspaper's front page last week laid out in disturbing detail, President Bush and his aides have not only condoned torture and abuse at secret prisons, but they have conducted a systematic campaign to mislead Congress, the American people and the world about those policies....The White House could never acknowledge that. So its lawyers concocted documents that redefined ''torture'' to neatly exclude the things American jailers were doing and hid the papers from Congress and the American people. That allowed the White House to claim that it did not condone torture, and to stampede Congress into passing laws that shielded the interrogators who abused prisoners, and the men who ordered them to do it, from any kind of legal accountability.
Besides the obvious fact that every American must take personal responsibility for what the American government does in his or her name, there is this: perhaps the oldest standards of all are words. Most standards are, after all, otherwise arbitrary and meaningless things that become distinctive and valuable only because we agree upon what they are supposed to mean. There is nothing inherently significant about 60 watts as compared to 55, and 32 ounces of fluid has no greater cosmic significance than 31. Even the otherwise rational elements of the metric system are divided or derived from arbitrarily chosen physical coordinates, such as the distance from the poles to the equator.
Late last year, I dedicated an issue of my eJournal to human rights standards. If you'd like to read more about the relationship between legal standards and the protection of human rights, you can find that issue here.
For further blog entries on Standards and Society, click here