The Philosopher's Eye

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A “torture” debate

Gitmo_AerialAs a matter of editorial policy, several major media outlets, including The New York Times and NPR, do not use the word “torture” to describe treatment of prisoners in US custody.  This policy has drawn criticism from opponents of US interrogation methods. One such critic, Glenn Greenwald, recently noticed that NPR used “torture” to describe Gambian officials’ treatment of journalist Musa Saidykhan despite similarities between Saidykhan’s treatment and US treatment of some “War on Terror” prisoners.  When asked to explain this, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard seemed to suggest that Saidykhan’s treatment counts as torture because it was done merely for sadistic purposes, whereas US treatment of prisoners in (e.g.) Guantanamo Bay does not count as torture because it is done in order to extract information.  Greenwald is unimpressed with this explanation.

Shepard’s view of torture might not sit well with many philosophers.  For example, Seumas Miller offers this definition for torture:

[T]orture is: (a) the intentional infliction of extreme physical suffering on some non-consenting, defenceless person; (b) the intentional, substantial curtailment of the exercise of the person’s autonomy (achieved by means of (a)); (c) in general, undertaken for the purpose of breaking the victim’s will.

It looks to me as if an act whose ultimate purpose is to extract information could satisfy criteria (a), (b) and (c).  So if Miller is right, then it seems the NPR ombudsman is wrong.  But maybe not: maybe NPR uses a different sense of “torture” than that which Miller explicates.  Anyway, we certainly shouldn’t consider Miller to be an unchallengeable authority on the concept of torture.

But there is a larger question to ask: In refusing to classify American treatment of prisoners as “torture,” has NPR shirked its journalistic obligations?  There is some debate about whether American practices constitute torture.  If American practices do not constitute torture, then obviously NPR has no responsibility to say otherwise.  But suppose American practices do constitute torture.  What then?

Note that NPR certainly does report American practices which (according to Greenwald) constitute torture.  For instance, NPR has reported instances of waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay, and waterboarding is one of the practices Greenwald considers to be torture.  Greenwald’s complaint is not that NPR fails to report instances of torture; rather, his complaint is that NPR reports instances of torture without calling them torture.

Is this a reasonable complaint?  Consider:

(1) Waterboarding occurred at Guantanamo Bay.

(1) is a matter of contingent fact, and news organizations are in business to report such facts when they are pertinent.  So it seems probable that if NPR had refused to report (1), then it would have failed an important responsibility.  Now consider (2):

(2) Waterboarding is a form of torture.

If (2) is true at all, then it is a necessary truth, and for the most part, news outlets aren’t in business to report such truths.  (You don’t often hear “Extra! Extra! 2+2=4!”)  So it doesn’t seem as though NPR has any special responsibility to report (2), even if (2) is true.

Of course, Greenwald’s complaint isn’t that NPR isn’t reporting (2).  Rather, his complaint is that NPR isn’t reporting something like (3):

(3) Waterboarding, which is a form of torture, occurred at Guantanamo Bay.

But it looks as though (3) is just the equivalent of the conjunction of (1) and (2).  If NPR has no special responsibility to report (2), and has already reported (1), could NPR have a further responsibility to report the equivalent of (1) and (2) conjoined?

Maybe.  Journalists often say their responsibility is not only to report current events, but also to provide “context” for those events.  Perhaps the classification of American interrogation methods as torture provides needed context.  However, the obligation to report facts in context might not be journalists’ only obligation.  Journalists also distinguish between “hard news” or “straight reporting,” on the one hand, and “opinion” or “commentary” on the other, and some think that when a reporter is engaged in straight reporting, she should not make any assertions about matters of public controversy.  Whether or not American interrogation methods constitute torture is still a matter of public controversy.

Related articles:

Causation and Responsibility
By Carolina Sartorio , University of Wisconsin at Madison
(Vol. 2, August 2007)
Philosophy Compass

A Primer on the Distinction between Justification and Excuse
By Andrew Botterell , University of Western Ontario
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

One comment on “A “torture” debate

  1. Terry Baker
    November 19, 2009

    Whether or not American, that is U.S. Federal Government and hired torturers abroad, actually tortured people is NOT a matter of controversy. Plug in the words “public controversy,” and you have entered in this argument the world of the absurd.

    The incredible assertion that it is or might be something less than torture flies in the face of reality. The eyes see, the ears here, perhaps the skin feels, yet there is somehow, it is claimed, a lack of sufficient knowing once the mind thinks it all over.

    And it is criminal to suggest that somehow circumstances should be allowed to stand us upright as torturers…though we might “legally forgive” those guilty, this does nothing to lessen the scope of our crimes.

    Myself, I say prosecute those guilty of these crimes fully, both here and abroad. Starting, of course, with George W. Bush. And while we and they are at it, prosecute as well for all those War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.

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