Nathan Bloom’s recent piece on torture (“Inhuman Nature,” 5/1/2009) is undoubtedly well-intentioned in that he seeks to ground the abhorrence of torture in direct human experience, rather than abstract principles. Yet when Bloom argues that “[t]orture should not be banned because of what it does to the soul [but] because of what it does to the body,” he fails to perceive that the horror of torture lies in its psychological impact, not in its physical manifestations. The psychiatrist Metin Basoglu has found that physical pain is not a strong predictor of the level of trauma suffered by torture victims; what matters most is perceived vulnerability and loss of control. Nonphysical stressors such as threats of rape, threats against family, isolation, witnessing the torture of others, and so on cause at least as much psychological harm as the infliction of physical pain.
Defining torture solely in terms of its physical nature, rather than its psychological context, creates opportunities for torture advocates to claim that the practices they advocate are not torture. For instance, some have attempted to minimize the atrocious nature of waterboarding by noting that American soldiers are waterboarded during SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training and do not suffer lasting trauma. Of course, the crucial difference between these practices and the use of waterboarding on prisoners is that SERE trainees are voluntary participants, and can withdraw from the program if they wish to. By contrast, the U.S. military terror suspect Jose Padilla was subjected to isolation, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation—not to the point of physical harm, and yet he suffered such trauma that two forensic psychiatrists deemed him a changed man and mentally unfit to stand trial.
Physical pain is a terrible thing, and it is important always to keep in mind the acts torturers commit on their victims. But physical injury is one instrument of torture among many. Torture is an act in which one human being exercises total power over another in order to destroy that person’s moral world and unmake his or her dignity and sense of self. In order to appreciate the true evil of torture, we must consider not only what is done to the body, but what is done to the mind––or, if you like, the “soul.” Long after physical wounds have healed, the wounds on the self remain.
Class of 2009