I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I hoped to do some serious thinking about torture, semantics and public policy over the weekend, and to something ready to post last Monday. That didn’t happen. I ended up working over most of the last two weekends, and on Mondays – my normal day off. But things have been percolating away, and I feel as if I am starting to get to the point where I have done enough research and thinking to begin to have an opinion.

For the past few years some Australian academics have been using the word ‘genocide’ to describe the removal of part aboriginal children into schools or home-based care. It has been claimed there was a policy of the forced removal of such children, even from caring homes or communities, simply because they were part aboriginal.

However, no such policy ever existed in any Australian jurisdiction. Not one one law ever prescribed such action, nor did any official guideline ever suggest it. No court, despite their sympathies for the cause, has ever found a single case in which this occurred.

All the evidence is that children of any racial background were only removed from their families because their parents either gave them up into to care, or because the children were being neglected or abused.

You can find more about this at Keith Windschuttle’s The Sydney Line.  Or for a brief introduction, I posted an article on this earlier this year called ‘Empty Apologies.’

Even if part indigenous children had been routinely removed into care to give them access to medical care and education, and so that they could be integrated into wider society, it is hard to see how this qualifies as ‘genocide’ in any sense even remotely related to how the word is normally understood.

The force of the word comes from the fact that what it describes – the deliberate murder or attempted murder of a whole race of people – is so horrendous that any normal person is shocked and appalled by it.

But taking children into care, even if the reasons for doing so were misguided (and they were not), is not genocide. The word genocide was used, not because it described what had happened – it did not – but to give those who used it a political advantage over the men and women who had taken those children into care, and those who suppported them, or even who refused to condemn them.

Something similar is happening with the use of the word ‘torture.’

Some people whose opinions I greatly respect (Zippy Catholic, for example) have suggested that ‘Any legitimate public discussion of torture definitions by faithful Catholics ought to acknowledge, as prerequisite to even discussing the matter, that waterboarding KSM was immoral torture.’

To say that begs the question is an understatement.

Before deciding whether some particular action was torture, we need to have a clear definition of what constitutes torture.

Mark Shea points out that the Church defines torture as:  ‘Violation of human dignity in the form of  intentional mental and/or physical harm in order to  use a human person as a means (or instrument) for some producible end against that person’s will.’

But this is simply not an adequate definition of torture.

Using a person as a means to an end in a way which causes them harm is wrong in almost all circumstances, but it is not necessarily torture. If it is, then I have been tortured a number of times, including by some former bishops.

The Compact Oxford Dictionary says torture is the ‘infliction of severe pain as a punishment or a forcible means of persuasion.’ That’s closer – torture involves not just harm but pain.

But the Oxford definition is not entirely adequate either. People torture kittens, and other people, just for fun. And the church is right about torture involving a refusal to recognise the other person as a person, as an end and not just a means.

What people mean they use the word torture is this: Serious physical or mental pain, deliberately inflicted, with disregard for the victim’s needs or rights.

If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times, this might very well constitute torture. A drop of water on the head, repeated incessantly, can cause severe mental pain. But KSM was not waterboarded 183 times. That is the total number of times water was poured. Most of those pours of water lasted less than ten seconds.

I have no doubt that he was uncomfortable, as were Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

But there is nothing in the memos to suggest even remotely that anyone ever, at any time, inflicted serious pain on any of those three detainees. They were never in danger of harm, and they knew they were never in danger of harm.

Instructions to operatives included notes that no technique should be used which would delay healing of any pre-existing wounds or injuries, and that if it appeared physical or psychological harm was being done by a particluar technique, that technique should no longer be used, or the interrogation stopped altogther.

Detainees at Guantanamo were and are provided with high quality food, medical and dental care. Their religious traditions are respected. There is no evidence of any disregard for their needs or rights.

All of the techniques were used at Guantanamo were techniques used on US military personnel in the course of their training.

Some of those techniques are harsh. People are entitled to question whether they were approriate or effective when used on detainees.

But to call them torture is misinformed, stupid, or politically motivated and dishonest.