Torture Rules: How Much Pain and Suffering Works for You?

Aug 28, 09 | 8:21 AM   byMichael Wolff
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So what is our policy on torture? During the Bush years, we now know, we did it. We tortured—extended exertions produced extreme anguish. We laid out meticulous procedures for how to do this. Inflicting physical suffering was part of our official interrogation trade craft. While theoretically we were a nation that opposed torture in any form, this was not true at all. We condoned it, and pursued its development. Even when some parts of the government became uncomfortable with these methods, other parts continued it, further refining the effectiveness—that would be the excruciation—of our techniques.

Now, perhaps we’ve always done it, always been a nation that, by any other name, pulled out people’s fingernails. It was just secret. We said we didn’t do it—because, well, no one wanted to know the truth—and then did it anyway. Okay, now it’s been laid bare.

So what do we do now? Seriously? How far do we go? What’s the policy, since we know we have torture policies.

In the American legal and bureaucratic mind, torture is not binary. We inflict physical suffering to get information or we don’t, is not quite how it works. Rather, there appears to be a range of physical abuse that is useful but that can be described as less than torture.

So what is it? What’s allowed?

Investigations are now gearing up. This will likely mean lots of gross descriptions about what we’ve done, but it will also mean lots of fine tuning about what we’re allowed to do. Already, significant parts of the Obama administration seemed miffed that there’s going to be close scrutiny of the torturers of the last administration.

This is, no doubt, partly because as fellow bureaucrats they have some sympathy for other bureaucrats who might get hoisted by how he or she coped with gray area rules. It is also because, well, it’s dangerous out there. How can you say how you’d react in an extreme situation? Never say never. Obama people may not be temperamentally inclined to torture like, for instance, Cheney, but it is a complicated world, where max-flex is always the best policy.

While we don’t torture, per se, and would never, for the most part, tolerate what the Bush people were willing to tolerate, nevertheless, there are methods, which, under certain circumstances, might have an upside that justifies the downside, or some such.

So are there guidelines? Can we see them?

And, just to be certain, have we abandoned the idea that all physical abuse is wrong? Is it a policy of torture limits? This almost became a major campaign issue. We are the party for waterboarding. We are the party against. But the party against remains, frankly, a little squirrelly about what it might yet be up for.

I would just like to know where we stand.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at You can also follow him on Twitter:
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