The shadow of the torturer

The U.S. Department of Justice has made public four classified memos, issued to the CIA between 2002 and 2005, that provided the legal basis for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” — torture — applied to terrorism suspects in their custody. The memos are available, in PDF format, on several Web sites (see, for example, the ACLU and the New York Times). Coverage: CBC, CNN, Marc Ambinder, New York Times.

One technique, from the memorandum of August 1, 2002, relating to the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative who had been captured in Pakistan earlier that year, immediately grabbed my attention. Abu Zubaydah had a fear of insects that interrogators wanted to exploit:

In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah. As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death.
[redacted] so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect’s placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position. An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box. Further, you have informed us that you are not aware that Zubaydah has any allergies to insects, and you have not informed us of any other factors that would cause a reasonable person in that same situation to believe that an unknown insect would cause him severe physical pain or death. Thus, we conclude that the placement of the insect in the confinement box with Zubaydah would not constitute a predicate act.

The New York Times reports that this particular tactic was not, in the end, used. But as someone who has an irrational fear of insects myself, I still have a thing or two to say about this.

A phobia of insects is an irrational fear. There is nothing irrational about being afraid of insects that can sting you to death, much as there is nothing irrational about being afraid of grizzly bears, great white sharks or crocodiles. Being afraid of deadly insects is reasonable. But if you have an irrational fear of insects, even harmless ones, then whether or not it stings, or whether or not its sting is deadly, does not matter one damn bit.

Being in physical contact with a large insect, no matter how harmless or benevolent, is just about the worst kind of personal hell I can imagine — even if I’m fully aware that the bug can’t hurt me. I’ve often said that if I had to choose between being locked in a room with a rattlesnake, or a room full of dragonflies buzzing about, I’d pick the rattlesnake every time. (But then again, I would, wouldn’t I.)

People don’t understand entomophobia as much as they understand, say, ophidiophobia. I would think that quite a few people would be horrified at the notion of being trapped in an enclosed space with several live snakes, no matter how harmless or tame those snakes were.

This memo argued that this tactic didn’t rise to the level of torture; then again, this same memo tried to argue the same thing about waterboarding. One gets the impression that they’re testing the letter of the law while violating its spirit.

Let’s not get hung up on the question of whether or not it was torture. Without cover of authority, I’d be sent to prison for doing stuff like this. So would any police officers, if they interrogated suspects in this manner. This, and the other nine tactics mentioned in the memo, ranging from face slapping to waterboarding, is beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour — outside the interrogation rooms of Bush-era CIA secret prisons, that is.

Previously: Verschärfte Vernehmung.