In recent comments commenters Bleustein and TM Lutas call for a definition of torture. This is not obscure. The prevailing legally accepted definition of torture from the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which the United States is a signatory and which has been ratified, defines torture in Article 1:
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, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, 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.
Note that the last sentence specifically exempts, for example, characterizing incarceration per se as torture regardless of how unpleasant an individual or members of any particular society might find it.
There are a few ambiguities in the definition. For example, there is no standard for what constitutes severe pain or suffering as opposed to minor discomfort and inconvenience. I also see no clear mandate for a culturally sensitive definition that, by inference, Bleustein would appear to see the need for. So I think that the examples that he gives, e.g. sleep deprivation, disagreeable music, or an infidel touching the Qu’ran, do not fall under the rubric of torture.
There is obviously quite a bit of grey area.
I am no expert in these matters but I think a reasonable person standard for the legal determination of what is or is not torture is the appropriate one. If a reasonable person of the captor nation considers a measure to be torture, then it should be considered torture. If not, not. Placing the burden on the nation or culture of the subject is raising the standard impractically and imprudently high. Specifically, I think that anyone who has actually committed a crime or perpetrated terrorism has implicitly consented to interrogation including some level of coercive interrogation that falls below the obvious standard of torture.
The provisions of the Convention include a prohibition of rendition, i.e. conveying subjects to other countries (particularly non-signatories), in order to be tortured.
Now, I happen to believe that we should have a predisposition against entering into treaties, we should not enter into treaties lightly and only when it’s to our overwhelming benefit as a nation and not just contingent gain, but that, once we’ve entered into a treaty we should adhere to the provisions of that treaty scrupulously or abrogate it. I don’t believe we can credibly secure or even claim the benefits of a treaty to which we do not adhere.
I believe that the Convention Against Torture is sufficiently vague that ratification was imprudent but ratify it we have and we should either formally abrogate it or conform to its terms.
Previous posts on the subject include: