PPPS: “Torture Lite and the Normalisation of Torture”

Hi everybody,

The paper I am presenting for this podcast symposium is part of an ongoing research interest of mine in how torture becomes institutionalized in military forces that are (in theory at least) committed to the prohibition against torture. I am particularly interested in how the processes of rationalization and normalization contribute to the use of torture, and how language, training, and torture methods effect the moral attitudes of those involved in the authorization and use of torture.

I was inspired to write this paper after noticing that the term “torture lite” was turning up quite frequently in the public debate about torture, used both by those who argue against torture and by those arguing that torture might sometimes be justified. I was interested in how the use of this phrase (and similar phrases such as “enhanced interrogation”) shaped the debate about torture, and in whether this term does pick out a set of torture techniques that are generally or always less severe than more violent torture methods. In particular, I began to wonder how the techniques described as torture lite (for example, extended sleep deprivation, forced standing, noise bombardment, isolation, and manipulation of heat and cold) shaped torturers’ (and others’) moral perception of what is being done to the victims and who is responsible for it. It struck me that so-called torture lite techniques share certain features that tend to mask the effects of these methods on the victims and minimize the torturer’s role in causing the victims’ suffering, and that this might play an important role in making such forms of torture seem more palatable to liberal democracies than would otherwise be the case.

I hope you find the paper interesting to read/listen to. I look forward to reading your comments, and many thanks to Simon May for organizing this symposium.

I haven’t included the footnotes in the podcast of the paper, and I have left some material out in order to make it a manageable length, but you can read the full version of the paper here

David Sussman’s excellent comments are available here

You can listen to the podcast below.

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About Jessica Wolfendale

I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, currently working on a 3 year research grant on military ethics education. My other research interests include the moral psychology of institutionalized violence, the ethics of torture, and bioethics.
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4 Responses to PPPS: “Torture Lite and the Normalisation of Torture”

  1. I found Jessica’s paper to be disturbingly informative. I learned a lot from it and thought is was convincing.

    I have a question about David’s attempt in his reply to reconceptualize “torture lite.”

    According to David, we should understand “full torture” as

    treatment that aims to make its victim feel absolutely vulnerable, in a position of utter powerlessness and exposure to a will that seems to recognize almost no moral, physical, or epistemic limits. This sort of torture often relies on physical violence because such violence and the pain it causes is a very effective way of making a person feel so exposed. (p.3)

    In contrast, we should understand “torture lite” as

    treatment that is not designed to exploit the agent’s general
    capacities of hope and fear [as full torture does], but rather to undermine their agency in general, and with this any confidence victims may have that can cope with their world in any way. When this primitive confidence is completely destroyed, there can be neither hope nor fear, but simply acquiescence…

    So understood, torture lite does not need to inflict pain, and generally proceeds more effectively if it does not. (pp.3-4)

    My concern about this definition is that it is too broad. Hypnosis would seem to count as torture on your view. So, too, would the administration of a “truth serum” or a drug that makes one highly suggestible. If we could get everyone the victim is going to see over the next few days to lie to her about most everything, that might fit your definition of torture lite, as well, insofar as doing so would undermine her confidence in her ability to cope with the world.

    We may object to these acts (at least sometimes), but they do not strike me as acts of torture.

  2. David Sussman says:

    I think this issue will turn on how hyponosis and truth serum work, and what the experience of being subjected to these techniques involves. I’m afraid my only sense of these things comes from the movies and TV.

    In any event, I agree that there’s an important difference in ways that the minimal self-possession characteristic of agency might be undermined. In my understanding of “torture lite”, the victim’s basic confidence in being able to cope with one’s world is undermined by being systematically defeated. I take it that in the kinds of isolation and disorientation involved in such treatment, a subject keeps trying to latch onto his world, and never really can. Ultimately, her self-possession is not just causally undermined but surrendered. So maybe there’s room for something like an experience of complicity in this case as well.

    I’m sure some drugs could produce this effect as well. But a truth drug might instead work more directly: not by giving the victim a pervasive experience of defeat in orienting himself toward his world, but in disrupting the more basic psychological powers that such agency depends on. (Extreme sleep deprivation maybe sometimes belong here as well). This too is highly objectionable, but I’d want to distinguish it from torture, both full and heavy, because of the way it seems to act on a completely sub-personal level.

    I’m not sure what to say about hypnosis because I don’t know enough about how it’s supposed to work. I think of hypnosis as a special state of intense concentration that requires a high degree of initial trust between the subject and the hypnotist. If so, then this would be very different from the sort of experience I’ve associated with torture lite. But maybe it’s something else. I suppose that “Gilligan’s Island” might not have been 100% reliable on these things.

  3. I’d like to ask Jessica to comment on the use of “torture lite” to terrorize or traumatize not only the person tortured but also other perceived enemies of the state. I’m wondering if some liberals may be willing to tolerate the practices we associate with “torture lite” because the actions involved are generally less shocking and the resulting injuries are less public, and so we assume “torture lite” is not being used by our military and civilian leaders to provoke general fear (terrorize potential terrorists) and subdue our perceived enemies. That is, we worry less that “torture lite,” as opposed to standard “torture,” will be employed for political or military ends other than intelligence gathering, and thus (perhaps wrongly) conclude that its use does not reduce us to the level of our enemies. Are the practices you include under “torture lite” different in this way, and what are the implications either way?

  4. I’ve been reading the comments on my paper with great interest. In David Sussman’s insightful comments he makes an interesting distinction between two forms of torture – torture methods which manipulate the victim’s hope and fear in order to make them feel completely powerless and desperate, and torture techniques that aim to undermine the victim’s agency entirely, so that the victim becomes so passive in the face of the torturer’s will that they are beyond fear and hope. Sussman suggests that this distinction could track the distinction between torture and torture lite, with the latter set of techniques being those that destroy the self/agency of the victim rather than those that co-opt the victim’s agency against them.

    While I agree with Sussman that some torture techniques aim to destroy the victim’s agency rather than co-opt it, I am not convinced that the moral difference between the two forms of treatment is significant enough to warrant different standards of justification. In practice it is not clear that the distinction between the two forms of torture is very clear-cut – in many cases of so-called torture lite the victim is given reprieves between torture sessions (the music stops for a while, sleep is permitted for a couple of hours, etc) precisely in order to manipulate the victim’s fears and hopes, and so I am not convinced that the distinction between the aims of torture methods is robust enough to justify creating two separate categories. But even if it is true that torture is sometimes used solely to destroy the victim’s self, to destroy someone’s self completely does not seem to me to be intuitively a lesser harm that forced self-betrayal.

    Laura Shrage asked me to comment on whether I think that torture lite methods may be used to terrorize not only the victim but also other perceived enemies of the state, given that these methods do not appear as obviously abhorrent to liberal democracies as do more physically violent tortures. This is a really interesting question. On the one hand, since torture lite methods do not appear to be as barbaric as more violent methods, I think it is probably true that citizens in liberal democracies are less likely to worry that these methods will used for the purposes of creating fear among the target population, particularly since public justifications of torture only ever refer to intelligence gathering to save the state, and never to the use of torture for other purposes. Because of this, as I argued in the paper, the use of such methods is less likely to be questioned and criticized. But on the other hand, torture lite methods are probably less effective as a tool for deliberately terrorizing perceived enemies because they do not leave visible marks on the victims, and so the victims’ community might not believe that they have been tortured. That said, however, I think that in reality torture is rarely used for just one purpose. Intelligence gathering is nearly always the stated justification for the use of torture, but in practice torture (and torture lite) is mostly used in dragnet interrogations against those merely suspected of involvement in or knowledge of terrorism, and so it is very likely to spread fear and uncertainly among those who might be targeted, even if this is not the stated aim of those who authorize torture.

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