“Torture” Defined

In the context of the previous post, and of a recent squabble between Liz Cheney (“Waterboarding isn’t torture”) and Sam Donaldson (derision to indicate “yes it is”), I thought we might try the unthinkable and go back to the basics of the Oxford English Dictionary online, and please know the following definitions and examples are easily skimmable (no need to get bogged down, unless of course you are an aficionado of the OED):

1. The infliction of severe bodily pain, as punishment or a means of persuasion; spec. judicial torture, inflicted by a judicial or quasi-judicial authority, for the purpose of forcing an accused or suspected person to confess, or an unwilling witness to give evidence or information; a form of this (often in pl.). to put to (the) torture, to inflict torture upon, to torture.

Acts Privy Counc. (1891) III. 407 Assisting to the sayd Commissioners for the putting the prisoners..to suche tortours as they shall think expedient. 1593 SHAKES. 2 Hen. VI, III. i. 131 You did deuise Strange Tortures for Offendors. 1608 D. PRICE Chr. Warre 21 To punish the bad, and to prouide some sharpe and fearful tortors for them. 1653 H. COGAN tr. Pinto’s Trav. iv. 10 We put the Captain and Pilot to torture, who instantly confessed. 1708 Act 7 Anne c. 21 §5 After [1 July 1709] no Person accused of any Capital Offence or other Crime in Scotland, shall suffer, or be subject or liable to any Torture. 1769 BLACKSTONE Comm. (1830) IV. xxv. 326 They erected a rack for torture. 1838 THIRLWALL Greece III. xxv. 393 Pisander moved that the persons..should be put to the torture, that all their accomplices might be known. 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. i. (1871) I. 16 According to law, torture..could not..be inflicted on an English subject. 1882 GARDINER Hist. Eng. (1884) VI. lxv. 359 note 2 Torture had been allowed [in England] by custom as inflicted by the prerogative, but not by law… Torture was inflicted as late as 1640 by prerogative.

{dag}b. transf. An instrument or means of torture.

1601 SHAKES. All’s Well IV. iii. 135 He calles for the tortures, what will you say without em? 1621 G. SANDYS Ovid’s Met. IX. (1626) 178 To teare the torture [letiferam vestem] off, he striues. 1721-2 R. WODROW Suffer. Ch. Scot. II. xiii. §5 (1837) II. 458/2 His leg being in the torture [i.e. the boot].

2. Severe or excruciating pain or suffering (of body or mind); anguish, agony, torment; the infliction of such.

c1540 tr. Pol. Verg. Eng. Hist. (Camden) I. 269 Doe you preferre the horrible tortures of warre beefore tranquillitee? 1593 SHAKES. Lucr. 1287 And that deepe torture may be cal’d a Hell, When more is felt than one hath power to tell. 1612 WOODALL Surg. Mate Wks. (1653) 185 Pain and torture of the intestines. 1659 H. MORE Immort. Soul II. x. §6. 220 Who would bear the tortures of Fears and Jealousies, if he could avoid it? 1734BP. PETRE Let. in E. H. Burton Life Challoner (1909) I. 93 He wasted away by degrees under the torture of the Strangury. 1744 M. BISHOP Life & Adv. 52 They were in such great Torture, wishing they had never come to Sea. 1797 MRS. RADCLIFFE Italian ii, He determined to relieve himself from the tortures of suspense. 1878 BROWNING La Saisiaz 353 As in one or other stage Of a torture writhe they.


If we accept #2 as a reliable definition . . .

“2. Severe or excruciating pain or suffering (of body or mind); anguish, agony, torment; the infliction of such.”

. . .then water-boarding is torture; the suffering, anguish, and torment it causes is severe; one need only imagine oneself being water-boarded; only a short imaginative, empathetic stride is required.

Sam Donaldson’s position (derision) isn’t that helpful. More helpful would be for him or the host, George Stephanopoulos, politely to ask Liz Cheney to define “torture.”

At the same time, Liz and Dick [a pairing that once denoted Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton] ought to fool no one with their euphemism, “Enhanced Interrogation.” Please! Knock it off!  If they believe torture is morally and strategically correct (obviously, they do),  they should say so, straight from the shoulder, and then let the legitimate argument begin.  But to deploy the term “enhanced interrogation [techniques]” is to betray a desire to have one’s cake and eat it, too; it betrays a weak slipperiness, and it erodes confidence in their seriousness.

In a not-so-related rhetorical aside, I wondered how Liz Cheney got to be an authority worthy of being invited on George’s S’s show, and I am almost not being facetious.  George S. earned his way on by working in the White house, George W. by getting a degree at Oxford, writing columns, and being on Brinkley’s show (and on other shows before that); E.J. Dionne by being a tested journalist and columnist; and Sam Donaldson by being a venerable TV reporter and host.  True, earning one’s way on a TV show by being a TV professional is, arguably, a kind of incestuous way of establishing authority; nonetheless . . . .  But so far as I can tell, Liz Cheney happens to be the daughter of a former Vice President, so . . . what?

I like the fact her points of view and rhetorical tricks are represented on the show, and she acquits herself just fine, interrupting a lot, adopting the sometimes-effective rhetorical stance of dismissiveness her father has perfected. Brava!  I just wish she were to be replaced by a like-minded but more credible person, such as a retired GOP politician, like Tom Delay (to pick just one example).  (It may be prudent to acknowledge here a potential question: “Tom Delay–credible?”  Yes, I think he credibly represents strains of thought in the GOP.)

If Delay or someone from a similar walk of life were to replace Liz Cheney,   I’d be less likely simply to wonder, “Why is this person considered an expert of some kind?”   Also, in general, I like to keep the family-members out of the picture.   For example, I would not have wanted to listen to one of Al Gore’s daughters opine on such a show when he was the Vice President.

End of digression.  Let us continue to consider the OED’s definition of torture, each in his or her own way.


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