Words, Standards and Torture: What’s in a Name

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 Online
For 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.
Why I am I writing about this topic in something called "The Standards Blog?"  

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.

Words, like weights and measures, also have meaning and value only to the extent that we share the same understanding of what they mean. When we depart from those commonly understood meanings, we fail to communicate effectively, either innocently to mutual disadvantage, or deliberately with the intent to deceive. And sometimes, we do worse.


When we play fast and loose with standards such as weights and measures (e.g., at a gas pump) or with the purity or composition of materials (as in manufacturing), we are likely to break the law. Laws, of course, are made up of words and not numbers.  Some of those words are given definitions in the laws in which they appear.   This is because breaking the law can, and should, have severe consequences, and words used in laws must therefore be used precisely and consistently.


In order for there to be laws capable of providing protection beyond the boundaries of a single country, the words used in laws must also be agreed upon internationally. But if, having reached such an agreement, individual nations can arbitrarily redefine the meaning of a word that is at the crux of a law, then the international system of law, and indeed the prospect of having any global system of laws at all, breaks down entirely.


The Twentieth Century bore brutal witness to what a world without common and enforceable laws, based upon a fundamental and inviolable sense of human dignity and human rights, can look like. Already, the Twenty-first Century is demonstrating an all-too great willingness to assume the same face. Must this sad start be the prelude to an unbroken future of more of the same?


If this century is not to be an unconscionable replay of the last, we must not only agree to agree – but also to continue to agree – upon those words upon which the global protection of human dignity and individual survival is based. No nation should be any more above the definition upon which a law is based, than above the law itself.


When words become part of international law, it should be a violation of international law to unilaterally reinterpret them.  And when we allow our government to engage in such behavior without speaking up, we become complicit in the same illegal behavior. 


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

sign up for a free subscription to Standards Today today!

Comments (9)

  1. As a regular reader of your blog, I come to
    your site for news and informed opinion on standards.

    Never the less, far from being put off by your post on
    torture, I thank you for that post.  As one of the more
    shameful, (and certainly more under-reported!) stories
    of of this year it is good to see those with an audiance
    writing about it.

    • Thanks for your reinforcement.  I find it terribly frustrating how powerless citizens are, even in a democratic society, to influence what governments do.  That said, I truly believe that we can’t abdicate responsibility for what our governments do.  But that leaves a a big gap – what exactly can one person do?

      It seems to me that the most obvious obligation is to make your feelings known.  And, as you say, if you have a venue available to you to speak your conscience, then the obligation to speak out is that much greater.

      Although this particular venue may seem like an odd one for this purpose, I’ve consistently written on social issues, although more so in my eJournal than this blog.  I think there’s a value to using odd venues, because people normally gravitate to the media outlets that feed them the types of opinions that they share, and too often news with a slant that they resonate with.  So one audience goes to CNN, and another to Fox, one to Rush Limbaugh, and the other to the New York Times.  The result is that someone expressing an opinion is likely to only be preaching to the choir, and therefore less likely to affect anyone’s thinking.

      Since technology is a more (although hardly entirely) politically neutral area, hopefully what I’ve written here may reach some people that are less likely to have read similar sentiments elsewhere, and perhaps lead them to reflect on them in a different way, especially as the primary season in the US is about to begin.

        –  Andy

    • I agree. I read the standards blog regularly. ( I use OpenOffice.org, but I don’t much care whether the standard we use is ODF or OOXML, as long as the standard is open and easily implimented by multiple vendors, which doesn’t seem to be the case with OOXML).

      When I was in the U.S. Army a few years ago, I went to DoD school with interrogators (96B, IIRC). People there taught me of the importance of the Geneva Convention and how the U.S. saved lives by having a reputation for treating prisoners extremely well, sometimes better than the enemy units they were a part of. We lost that edge during Vietnam, but I thought we got it back for Desert Storm, with thousands of Iraqis supposedly surrendering without a fight so that they could be fed and treated well.

      America used to have a reputation as a country people wanted to live in. We have squandered that and are suffering the consequences.

  2. I find the text on this site ridiculously small and unreadable.  I configured my browser to give me a readable font size, and your CSS reduces it by over 25%.  What on earth made you think that was a good idea?

    • Sorry for the problem with the text size.  I’m a little puzzled, because when I look at my site in comparison to, say, Groklaw, the type sizes look identical, and we both use Geeklog, presumably with the type sizes on the same setting.  I’ve had c. 10 million visitors at this site, and this is only the second complaint I’ve had on type size, so I’m wondering whether its an issue unique to a particular browser.  Would you let me know what you’re using, and I’ll see if I can figure out what the problem is?

      Thaks for letting me know about this issue.

        –  Andy

      • > I’m a little puzzled, because when I look at my site in comparison to, say, Groklaw, the type sizes look identical

        They aren’t.  GrokLaw forces a font size of 12px.  You take whatever the font size is in the user’s browser and reduce it by 27%.  That ends up as a similar font size if your configured font size is near 16px, but that’s merely coincidental, the two methods of setting the font size are vastly different.  And Groklaw is hardly a model to follow, that font size is almost as bad as yours.

        Really, you need to get away from looking at it in your browser and thinking it looks okay to you.  Firstly, you and I are seeing different things.  Secondly, we *should* be seeing different things.  The right font size for you is not necessarily the right font size for anybody else.  Everybody sees different things on the web.  That’s the way web design works.  Even so much as a different monitor can change what people see.

        > I’ve had c. 10 million visitors at this site, and this is only the second complaint I’ve had on type size, so I’m wondering whether its an issue unique to a particular browser.

        There’s a saying about flies that seems appropriate here.  I almost didn’t bother leaving a complaint at all.  It’s annoying to fiddle with my settings to work around your bug just to help you out.  I’d totally expect you to have virtually no complaints – would *you* bother complaining on some random website you couldn’t actually read, or would you just hit the back button?  And I bet those people who find your website unreadable and just hit the back button are counted as "visitors", right?  The only reason you are getting *this* complaint is because you are the straw that broke the camel’s back and a particularly bad example.

        It’s not an issue unique to a particular web browser.  It’s an issue that is obscured by many things.  For instance, Person A with a 17" monitor at 1024×768 resolution, and Person B with a 17" monitor at 1280×1024 resolution.  Person A will get larger text than Person B.  Or Person C with default font settings and Person D who prefers larger text and has increased the font size in his browser settings.  You reduce the font size *more* for Person D!

        Please, just stop trying to override your visitors’ preferences.  Why are you reducing their font size by 27% in the first place?  Do you actually have a reason to do so?


      • As I said, I’ll have my IT person look into this, as I was unaware that there was any reduction going on at all.  Contrary to your assumptions, I correspond and talk to many, many, many of my readers, and none of them have ever raised this.  I also have had multiple IT professionals involved, some of whom have made recommendations, all of which I have followed. 

        And here’s something else to think about:  I spend 1,000 hours a year bringing free news to readers like you.  So when you leave comments, as they say, cut me a break, and try to be as civil to me as I am in replying to you.

          –  Andy

Comments are closed.