Torture apologists are fond of hypotheticals. The hypothetical question usually goes something like this: “If the detainee knew where the bomb was, and there were only minutes to remove it from a densely populated area, then would you…” The idea is that in such an extreme case, you will agree that torture is justified. The problem, of course, is that people routinely lie under torture just to make it stop.
So here’s a different hypothetical case. Would the idea of torturing women make a difference to those who defend waterboarding? Is torture gendered? This hypothetical arises as Osama bin Laden’s wives are set for interrogation by the United States. It is only a hypothetical because President Obama early on said his administration would abide by the Geneva Conventions, which forbids torture.
Dick Cheney, however, has just laid out, yet again, the case for waterboarding. Does this thesis he puts forward, that such kinds of interrogations are legal and justified, hold up when we are considering the torture of women? And if not, why not?
Take a case that is not hypothetical. Videos of torture, especially those linked to the well-known Facebook page, We Are All Kahled Said, the young Egyptian man beaten to death in the street by Egyptian police, were pivotal in bringing down President Mubarak in Egypt. They continue to be important and in the ongoing struggle for human rights and democracy in the “Arab Spring.” One called “Policy Brutality in Egypt,” the torture of a woman, may be found on YouTube, but due to the extreme content will not be directly linked here. Other videos of brutality by both police and military, not only now in Egypt but in other places in the Middle East, may be found linked to this Facebook page.
Let’s suppose, hypothetically again, that some of the simulated waterboarding videos, like this one from Amnesty International showed women instead of men. Would you react differently?
The gendering of hypothetical torture, I believe, heightens sensitivity to the real issue at stake in these so-called “debates” over torture. The gendering of actual torture, as is the case for the video from Egypt, is an even more powerful a testimony. The issue is not whether torture “works” or not, or whether some lawyers on your payroll told you it was legal or not, or someone told you waterboarding wasn’t torture. The issue is “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” per the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Torture is truly a moral evil, whether done against women or men. If images of the torturing of women, sadly not hypothetical in many cases, help people see that, it is a means by which some can get beyond the apologetics for torture. It is not because it is particularly wrong to torture women. It is wrong to torture. And there’s no debate.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite | May 11, 2011 9:20 AM