What Is Torture?

By Rebecca Gordon
Oct 25, 2010

Water tanks used by National Guard to torture political prisoners in León, Nicaragua.The answer to this question may seem obvious, but it’s not. If it were, people in this country wouldn’t have been arguing about it for the last nine years. Is sleep deprivation torture? What about sexual humiliation? Waterboarding? Applying electrical current to a person’s body?

You might think this last suggestion would be torture by anybody’s definition. But you’d be wrong. Here’s Osvaldo Romo, Osvaldo Romo, a lower-echelon functionary of DINA, Chile’s security police in the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship, claiming that he never tortured anyone.
“And applying [electrical] current?” a reporter asked him during a prison interview.
“I don’t believe applying current is torture,” says Romo.[1]
“Well,” you might think, “that was Chile under a military dictatorship, not a democratic government like the United States.” Then you remember how Jay Bybee and John Yoo of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel described the kind of pain that constitutes torture. It must be so great that it would “ordinarily be associated with a sufficiently serious physical condition or injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions….”
Let’s start again. Here’s my definition of institutionalized state torture:
The intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be breaking this definition down into its constituent elements: the legal, experiential (what some philosophers call “phenomenological”), and political aspects of torture. I’ll be looking at how U.S. practice in the post-9/11 period fit this definition. And I’ll be suggesting what we can and must do to dismantle this practice.
One last note: you’ll notice I say “U.S. practice,” not “U.S. actions.” That’s because I believe – and intend to show – that torture is not a one-off bit of behavior, something people are driven to do in an emergency. Institutionalized state torture is not Jack Bauer saving thousands from imminent destruction by torturing the terrorist who can stop it. Torture is an ongoing practice, an institution with an extensive infrastructure, a training process, rituals of initiation, and its own set of values.
Hypothetical situations in which a noble man agrees to torture the one to save the many simply do not happen. As long as we keep the ethical debate in the realm of this kind of hypothetical torture, we will be ignoring the very real torture that goes on in a regular, routine way in this country and around the world.

Torture update: Among the many things revealed in the latest Wikileaks dump of 400,000 U.S. military documents are revelations of torture conducted by Iraqi police and military. The British newspaper the Guardian has done some of the best reporting on this part of the material. Here they report on the U.S. military practice of turning detainees over to the Iraqi Wolf Brigade, which was notorious for its use of torture.


[1]Nancy Guzmán Jasmen, Romo, Confesiones De Un Torturador, 1. ed. (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Planeta Chilena, 2000).

¿Aplicar corriente?"

“Yo creo que aplicar corriente no es tortura.” (My translation.)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Gordon is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras organizing committee. She has been a political activist for more years than she cares to remember, working on issues of feminism, war and peace, economic and racial justice, and specifically torture in the post-9/11 United States. Rebecca's new book, Mainstreaming Torture comes out in May 2014 from Oxford University Press. She's also the author of Letters From Nicaragua, a record of six months spent in the war zones during the contra war.

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