A decade ago, amid early reports of detainee abuse at CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay, defenders of U.S. detention and interrogation operations promoted a flawed distinction between torture and “torture-lite.” They argued that, to our nation’s credit, rather than resorting to brutal and violent maiming and mutilation, we employed less cruel techniques—techniques like sleep deprivation, extended isolation, stress positions, sensory bombardment, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, sexual and cultural humiliation, confinement in coffin-like boxes, and threats of harm to family members. This favorable assessment, however, does not withstand scientific scrutiny; these hands-off psychological methods are at least as devastating and debilitating in their long-term and often permanent effects. Yet the notion of “torture-lite” helped to encourage the public to accept the inhuman treatment of detainees.
Now, following last month’s release of the Senate report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” we are drawn to another deceptive distinction: the difference between “torture tolerance” on the one hand and what might be called “torture tolerance-lite” on the other. To nobody’s surprise, torture tolerance found its go-to spokesperson years ago in Dick Cheney. The former vice-president predictably returned to center stage to defend the CIA’s methods. His strident message has ranged from “I would do it again in a minute” to “It absolutely did work” to “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” Indeed, Cheney and other Bush Administration officials who instituted the program apparently believe our torturers deserve to be decorated, not indicted.