Figuring out torture is, well, torture
THE trouble with torture is that one man's torture is another man's pleasure, and I'm not just talking about weirdos who dabble in sadomasochistic entertainment.
Take Gustav Mahler's 7th Symphony in E Minor, for instance. One guy might happily listen to that ditty for hours, while another fellow forced to listen to it would crack and rat out his own mother as being the head of the Cloverdale, Ohio, cell of al-Qaida. I know I would, and my mother isn't even alive.
There's a big debate going on over exactly what torture is, whether it works and whether it should be used on terrorists to get them to rat out their mothers and other people.
First off, torture does sort of work. That's why it's been around so long. It's funny to see Harvey Milquetoasts like Wolf Blitzer say "torture doesn't work" when you know that if you pulled just one fingernail off one of his dainty news-anchor fingers with a pair of needle-nosed pliers, he'd confess to personally starting the War of 1812. That's where the "sort of" comes in, because while torture is good for getting people to admit stuff, the accuracy of what they're admitting is sometimes shaky. Wolff Blitzer might have started the War of 1812, but I doubt it.
THE BIG question is, What is torture anyway? The crew from Monty Python probably best explored this conundrum in its classic "Spanish Inquisition" sketch. You'll recall this is the bit where everyday people are unexpectedly raided by priests of the Spanish Inquisition. ("Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!") When their victim fails to admit he's an agent of Satan, he first is tortured with soft couch cushions. When that doesn't work, the inquisitors break out -- GASP! -- the comfy chair! ("Not the comfy chair!")
At Guantanamo Bay, suspected terrorists have it pretty comfy, but some Americans feel they are being tortured. The method of torture? In one case, making them listen to music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Really. Now, that particular musical group might not be my cup of chili, but if I were imprisoned by our nation's enemies and forced to listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers while residing in a rather balmy, tropical locale with three meals a day and my own prayer rug, well, I'd consider myself pretty lucky. (If they started piping in Mahler's 7th Symphony, I might feel differently.)
Congress wrestled with the whole question of what exactly is torture and what kind should be allowed on terror suspects. The consensus emerged that the best way to address torture is to change its name to something else, such as "gentle coercion," "cursory examination" or "that question/answer thingy."
Some people wanted to make a laundry list of all the types of torture and then check off the ones that seem least barbaric. But that wouldn't work because with torture, like ice cream, someone's always coming up with a new flavor. We could make a list running from the comfy chair to needles being poked into one's eyeballs, but then you get into all kinds of silly arguments, like what if the comfy chair has a broken spring that jabs you in an annoying place, and what size needles are best for poking eyeballs.
In fact, anti-torture extremists, when questioned while listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, concede that torture is anything that makes someone say something they don't want to say. So, making a terrorist miss his afternoon nap could be considered torture. (I know it is to me.)
Personally, I am willing to leave the question of what is torture to someone like Sen. John McCain, who actually was tortured in Vietnam, and not with a comfy chair. To this day, McCain can't lift his arms over his head, so if he says we shouldn't use certain interview techniques, I'm with him.
If we want to continue to claim to the nation of God, apple pie and the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- in other words, "the good guys" -- we should avoid employing torture in any of its vernacular guises. Either we believe God is on our side or we don't. If he is, we don't need needle-nose pliers or comfy chairs.
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org