What makes torture OK?

The Nation and the Guardian both carry stalwart defenses of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela against Yanqui imperialism and its counterrevolutionary allies in the streets of Caracas.  Curiously, neither account picks up on this sentence from an AP story:

Maduro said Friday that San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, a member of the same party as Lopez, would soon join the jailed opposition leader behind bars for fomenting violence. “It’s a matter of time until we have him in the same cold cell,” Maduro said.

The “cold cell” refers to the use of hypothermia as torture. I seem to recall that when the cold cell was being used on the orders of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, progressives – including writers for The Nation and the Guardian – tended to be rather critical of the practice. I wonder what might make this circumstance different enough to allow support for a regime whose leader openly boasts about torturing his opponents?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

30 thoughts on “What makes torture OK?”

  1. How do you come to the conclusion that “cold cell” here refers to the infliction of hypothermia? I saw nothing in the AP article to that effect.

    1. I've added a link. The term "cold cell" has, so far as I know, only one meaning. What alternative interpretation do you propose?

      1. "Cold" is a word of many meanings in English. "Harsh" or "unsympathetic" are two. Or the peculiar meaning of "cold" in "cold steel." I doubt that Maduro spoke in English–I have no idea of the Spanish context or who did the translation. Nor do I have any idea if he is personally acquainted with the technology of torture. I never attributed any particular meaning to "cold cell" until this post drew it to my attention.

        That being said, there aren't many progressive sympathizers of the Chavez-Maduro regime. There are a number of progs who don't see much difference between Chavez-Maduro and the oligarchs who preceded them. I'm not in their camp–authoritarian corporatist-socialism is not to my taste, to put it mildly. It is almost as ugly as oligarchic capitalism and far less efficient.

        But it's worth remembering Chavez would have never gotten off the ground if a majority of Venezuelans didn't feel screwed by an uncaring upper class.

      2. It's really subtle, like he's speaking in code. Not knowing the code, "the same cold cell" sounds about as sinister as "the same tiny cell." I guess the latter could be construed to mean that they're going to use stress position torture, but mostly it just seems like a bit of gratuitious and not all that sinister description. I mean, I know jail cells are tiny, and I guess they're probably often a bit drafty?

        I don't blame someone for missing it. Maybe that's ideological blinders? But maybe it's just because, if it's bragging, it's terribly subtle bragging, which seems like a contradiction.

        1. In no way a fan of the Venezuelan government, but this would have been my assumption if I quickly read the AP piece.

          1. Agree, if they said "cold and lonely cell" I would not assume that meant hypothermia and solitary confinement necessarily, but more a figure of speech. When I think of prison cells, I think of them as cold and lonely, even if they are at ambient temperature and may or may not have cellmates.

      3. Obviously you have never read Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The cell in the Château d’if, the notorious prison where the protagonist Edmond Dantès (alias le Comte de Monte-Cristo), is imprisoned is described as dark, dank and cold.

      4. Without more context, I would have interpreted "the same cold cell" to refer to a cell that's bare and unadorned. "Cold" as a metaphor. I've (thankfully) never heard of "cold cell" being used as an idiom for torture but it appears to have been used that way in a song by Johnny Clegg.

  2. God knows I'm always eager to find hypocrisy. I mean, it's tasy, tasty stuff and when you spot it you've found something really important. I'm having a hard time getting it up here, though. A boast that was a little less ambiguous would do the trick, I think. Anyone know of one?

  3. I know a few people who are also confused about who to root for. There are a lot of countries out there, many of them fighting, and it's hard to keep up. Today on Warren Olney, someone was talking about courtpacking by the regime, which I found helpful. (I'm usually agin' it.) Mostly I just think people need to be non-violent. "Fomenting" democracy shouldn't be a crime.

    I am glad you posted this though, it is a point that is always worth making. Torture = bad.

    It's not about whether or not you like the person. We should always remind ourselves. My guess is, the journalists in question just sort of skimmed over that part and it didn't register. But nice catch.

  4. I agree that these hypocritical defenses of the regime reflect badly on the authors and the journals who published this poorly done agitprop The tactics that the current Venezuelan regime used to “win” the last election were morally indefensible. Murder, torture and the wave of lawless repression being used by the Chavistas to hold on to power are beyond indefensible.

    Nevertheless, I must agree with those commenters who have said that the use of the term “cold cell” is a bit of a thin reed. As I have said, the human rights record of the Chavez government was awful and the current bunch of thugs is even worse. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be any indication on the Amnesty Int’l and Human Rights Watch sites that hyperthermia is a torture practiced by the current government.

    The current government seems to prefer the more traditional methods of beatings, suffocation, electric shock, even sodomization with a rifle barrel. These are apparently supplemented by arbitrary, indefinite detention in regular prisons (which are horrible, anyway) and outright murder. But hyperthermia doesn’t seem to be in the Venezuelan government’s repertoire.

  5. Would be good to know the specifics of the translation.
    Did the speaker use an idiom in their native tongue that is specific, or even has the same implication?

  6. One reason the US shouldn't keep plotting to overthrow leaders in Latin America, even morally dubious ones, is that it gives those who survive the attempted coups too much street cred. A repeat of 2002 would be a political disaster for the opposition in Venezuela.

  7. Since Maduro doesn’t speak English (according to his Wikipedia entry, which links to news accounts), I wonder what he actually said — presumably in Spanish — and if what he actually said has the same implications you’re drawing here. It wouldn’t be the first time an artful mistranslation was used to tar someone.

    1. The video says "y tu celda sea mas fria que tu jefe fascista"

      more or less " and your cell shall be colder than your fascist boss' [cell]"

      So a little indistinct. I'm not even 100% sure it's the same quote.

  8. Maduro and Chavez not only torture, but squander oil resources.

    But they replaced governments that are worse, and their anti-Americanism is heroic, because the world desparately needs nations to stand up against our imperialist government which murders civilians and tortures with impunity.

    1. I think you've either missed Mark's point or you're trying to prove it. I think you've actually managed to do both at once, which is a remarkable achievement. Speaking for myself only, and setting to one side the factual question of whether the Chavez government was actually an improvement, I don't see the logic of what you're saying.

      Like most right thinking people, you condemn the senseless, almost random murder of civilians and the torture of helpless captives (many of whom are innocent of any crime) by the American government. I am also opposed to these things. I oppose them because I believe they are evils in and of themselves and because they are corrosive to the bonds that hold liberal societies together. I say that nothing good can come from the use of such tactics and I condemn them as evil regardless of whether they are done by the right or the left.

      But, unlike me, you don't condemn the murder of civilians. You don't condemn political repression and governmental terrorism directed against political dissidents. You do not condemn torture at all. To the contrary, you applaud these evils and declare that torture and the murder of political dissidents is heroic when perpetrated even against innocents in support of a cause you believe opposes what you deride as American imperialism.

      How can you condemn the practice of political repression and torture by the Americans as evil yet applaud these very evils when they are perpetrated against your political opponents? Do you not see that your cause, which I take to be "anti-Americanism," is delegitimized and shown to be morally defective by your embrace of torture, political repression, and the murder of civilians and dissidents?

    2. Maduro is terrible. His violence against civilians is awful. He is entitled to, and deserves, heartfelt condemnation for his policies. (As I said, he is also squandering the oil resources of his country, which may result in future generations of Venezuelans being condemned to poverty.)

      The problem is, on the international stage, we are the rogue state. We are the biggest violator of international norms, an evil country full of macho, imperialistic, bellicose people who cheer on the murder of darker-skinned foreign innocents. America is an awful, malign country.

      So it is really important that we not be the only powerful country with unilateral power to do whatever we want. And unfortunately, in practice, the checks on our behavior come from repressive countries like Venezuela, Russia, and China. But given how evil we can act when we are unchecked, that is still the best the international community can do.

      1. How does more evil prevent evil? My impression is that evil begets evil.

        I don't understand your reasoning. How exactly does "America is an awful, malign country" equate to support for people in Venezuela being murder and tortured by their government? Even assuming, arguendo, that we are the worst of the worst, I don't understand how having more countries doing awful things makes things better.

  9. Mark, I'm getting tired of your repeated tactic of pointing to some egegrious behavior, and then painting everybody associated with a cause in any way as compromised by it, unless they publicly denounce it to your satisfaction.

    By your own standard, your support of Megan McArdle associates you with:

    1) The Iraq War.
    2) Lying about deaths.
    3) Hackish propaganda about economics.
    4) Koch-funded astroturfing about the ACA.
    5) Lying with statistics as a daily exercise.

    I await your denunciations of every lie or misleading BS which she has published.
    Because I'm a fair and generous man, I won't insist on you taking out newspaper ads – blog posts will do 🙂

    1. I think Mark's larger point was that the writers of these articles (and their respective publishers to the extent that the article reflect editorial judgments) are hypocrites because they and their ilk regularly decry similar human rights abuses when they are perpetrated by regimes of the right. Speaking for myself, I agree with Mark’s larger point. Any article about the Maduro government in a publication of the left that does not discuss the rampant human rights abuses is agitprop.

      I do agree that Mark obscured his larger point by directing attention to what I believe is a pointless sideshow about whether Maduro had threatened a political opponent with a particular kind of torture. There is more than enough evidence to establish that the Maduro regime practices all manner of repressions, including torture and murder, against political dissidents. That is the central reality of the Maduro government and we should not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by a linguistic analysis of any particular statement.

      1. Mitch, what Mark is doing is the old 'I demand that you denounce X right now (and whenever I demand it), or your whole movement is evil'. He's done this before (last time was when somebody said some nasty sh*t about Israel), while not having a problem with supporting people who say nasty sh*t himself.

        1. Mitch, what Barry is doing is "strawmanning" (I'm sure it's not deliberate). Mark is instead arguing that "these guys have chosen the wrong side, here's the evidence that they themselves would consider damning in other contexts". I actually don't find Mark's 'cold cell" evidence all that convincing as a clearly stated threat, but the structure of the argument is fine.

  10. Frankly, Mark, this is beneath you. You've done excellent work on crime and punishment, which will have a real and good effect on the lives of millions. You shouldn't sully yourself with things more worthy of Glenn Reynolds.

    1. I don't think Mark is sullying himself. Maduro literally threatened Ceballos that "Your cell will be colder than your fascist boss". Whether Maduro meant "más fría" literally or figuratively, he's not exactly promising Ceballos legal due process. He's predetermining the crime, the verdict, and the punishment. That's what dictators get to do; even dictators elected "democratically" in the illiberal democracy that is Venezuela.

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