The Language of Torture

This paper was originally written in French and has been translated into English for


  1. The Algerian Question

Europeans once made up the urban middle classes in Algeria. Muslims (of which there were eight times the number of Europeans) were poorer and less educated, and there existed political inequality. Algerian nationalism was formed in part by the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was comprised of those who wanted to take revolutionary measures. In 1954, the NLF launched an insurrection, led operations against military and civilian buildings, and demanded recognition of Algerian nationality.

To increase international and French national attention to their struggle, the NLF decided to bring the conflict to cities and trigger a nationwide general strike, as well as plant bombs in public places. The most notable manifestation of the new urban campaign was the Battle of Algiers, which began on September 30, 1956. General Jacques Massu was instructed to use any methods deemed necessary to restore order in the city, find and eliminate terrorists. These orders did not preclude torture.

  1. The Oppression Spring Theory

The Battle of Algiers illustrates a theory I call the Oppression Spring Theory. Imagine that I have a spring placed vertically on a counter. I place my hand on top of the spring and press it down so that the coils are forced closer together. The harder I push on this spring, the more difficult it becomes to press it down further. It’s physics. The more force I exert downward, the more (an equal amount of) upward force is exerted on my hand. So, the more I press down, the more the spring wants to pop back up.

Imagine that my hand slips, or my arm gets weak, or I exert not a completely downward force, but a lazy, slightly sideways force. The spring will not only rise to its original vertical position, but will jump back up in a burst of released upward, uncontained force.

This theory applies to oppression. That is to say, the force with which one oppresses a group of people is met with an equally strong opposing force by that group of people.

  1. Solution

The 1966 Italian-Algerian film by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers, was released four years after the end of the Algerian War. The film caused great political controversy in France and was banned for five years. Torture scenes were cut from the original American and British versions because they were considered incendiary toward the French. For example, one of the scenes shows Col. Mathieu responding to questions at a press conference. He said:

“The word ‘torture’ does not appear in our orders. We have always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies. As for the NLF, they request that their members, in the case of capture, remain silent for 24 hours. Then they can talk. By then the organization has had sufficient time to render all information useless. What type of interrogation should we choose? One that the courts use for a murder trial, which drags on for months?”

When a reporter told him: “The law is often inconvenient, Colonel”, he replied:

“And those who set off bombs in public places, do they have respect for the law? Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer, “Yes,” you must accept the consequences.”

In the film, the French use forms of torture as a means of interrogation. In March 2003 in the United States, waterboarding was used to interrogate Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In August that same year, the Pentagon screened the film to provoke a discussion of the challenges the French had faced, the controversy over torture, and to discuss the similarities with our own crisis after September 11, 2001. A flyer for the screening at the Pentagon said, “Win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at close range. Women plant bombs in cafés. Soon the entire Arab population will build to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come see a rare screening of this film.” How is the U.S. facing terrorism, terrorists, and Muslims in our country?


  1. Waterboarding

After the waterboarding incident of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the subsequent screening of The Battle of Algiers, the controversy remains: Is it true that waterboarding is torture? Should it be among the methods of interrogation used by the United States if we claim we are a country that does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture?

“Torture”, as defined by United States code 18,2340, is an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control. In this context and by this same code, “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from:

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

Waterboarding consists of immobilizing the subject on his back with the head inclined downward; water is then poured over the face and breathing passages, thus triggering the mammalian diving reflex causing the captive to experience the sensation of drowning. In contrast to submerging the head face-forward in water, waterboarding precipitates an almost immediate gag reflex. What follows is an excerpt from a testimony of an American man who was waterboarded in a planned, controlled environment by other Americans:

“…[I was] unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water. …I felt the mask come down again. Steeling myself to remember what it had been like last time, and to learn from the previous panic attack…I soon found that I was an abject prisoner of my gag reflex. …I was completely convinced that…I had firmly uttered the predetermined code word that would cause [the experiment] to cease. But my interrogator told me that…I had not spoken a word. So now I have to wonder about the role of false memory and delusion.”

This testimony shows that the damage done by this waterboarding technique is psychological. No physical harm was reported anywhere in the extended testimony. The testimony also reads:

“You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning.”

One argument is that drowning means to die of submersion or inhalation of water, not to die of a panic attack when someone feels like he or she is going to die because of submersion or inhalation of water.

Another argument is that it “opens a door that cannot be closed. Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well then bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack.” This statement can be interpreted as saying that there are degrees of torture, and waterboarding is a gateway to the more torturous tortures.

How do we determine degrees of torture? How it feels to a person? Degrees of torture are determined by perception. This seems more torturous than that. Perception is subjective. We cannot objectively define varying degrees of torture through subjective means. However, if we appeal to the language of torture, the question of “degrees of torture” arises.

  1. Vagueness

Despite the seemingly clearly defined terms of U.S. code 18,2340, the use of waterboarding by the United States in 2003 has created much controversy. Is waterboarding torture? Is waterboarding ethical? Why is the line between what constitutes ethical behavior and what constitutes torture so vague?

Vagueness here involves indeterminacy rather than ambiguity or non-specificity of information. It arises with scalar, or gradable, predicates, which means that they can be characterized by “more” or “less”. For example, the predicate “red” can be used with “more” to express a “redder than” relation. Or, an act can be described as more or less ethical than another act.

The word “sorites” is derived from the Greek word for “heap.” The Sorites Paradox is so named because it deals with the predicate “heap” as a scalar, or gradable predicate. For example, “This is more of a heap than that.” In the form of a logical argument, the Sorites Paradox would be set up as follows:

Premise 1:       A 10,000-grained collection of sand is a heap.

Premise 2:       If a 10,000-grained collection of sand is a heap, then so is a 9,999-grained collection of sand.

Premise 3:       If a 9,999-grained collection of sand is a heap, then so is a 9,998-grained collection of sand.

Premise 10,000: If a 2-grained collection of sand is a heap, then so is a 1-grained collection of sand.

Conclusion: 1-grained collections of sand are heaps.

This conclusion is paradoxical. 1-grained collections of sand are not heaps. The logical argument above, however, shows that our conclusion is that 1-grained collections of sand are heaps.

  1. The Paradoxes of Language

Why are we compelled to accept Premise 2? Premise 2 through Premise N are subject to the No Sharp Boundaries Paradox and the Tolerance Principle. The No Sharp Boundaries Paradox states that if F is a vague predicate (can be characterized by “more” or “less” e.g. more torturous or less torturous), then F does not have a sharp boundary: ¬(∃x)(Fx∧¬Fx’). So there is no single point at which the collection of sand changes from being a heap to being not a heap. If there is no sharp cut-off point, then there are borderline cases. For example, if we are looking at a 500-grained collection of sand and were asked if it is a heap or not a heap, we would generally be hesitant to say either “yes” or “no”. I may say “Yes, I suppose it is a heap,” but then if I were asked again tomorrow, I may say “No, I wouldn’t say it’s a heap”. I may also say “It’s not quite a heap, but more of a pile”. This type of response is put forth when we encounter borderline cases.

Borderline cases are hazy, meaning they are neither definitely heaps nor definitely not heaps. And yet, this leads to an infinite regress. At which point does a case become a borderline case? Where are the boundaries for borderline cases? And where are the boundaries that determine those boundaries? And so on. To avoid this regress, we must state that there is no sharp cut-off point on a heap-scale which tells us at which grain-1 gradation (10,000 grains is a heap – 10,000-1 grain = 9,999 grains is a heap…) our heap is no longer a heap. The No Sharp Boundaries Paradox would require that we make an apparently seamless transition from definitely not a heap to definitely a heap without saying anything contradictory.

Look again at a sorites sequence for the predicate “heap”:

Heap(0), Heap(1),…,Heap(10). The Forced March would be if I were to ask is Heap(n) true for every gradation 1-10. There are two problems we would face. First, we cannot assign a different semantic status to any two consecutive items in the series. Part of the reason for this is our tacit acceptance of the Tolerance Principle: (∀x)(Fx→Fx’). That is, for all members of a series, if one member is F (heap) then its successor is F as well. If we say that there is a precise boundary, we are ignoring the Tolerance Principle.

For example, I cannot say that Heap(6) is true and that Heap(5) is not true. They are successive items in the series, and I must assign them the same semantic status. Otherwise, I would be saying that there is a precise boundary at Heap(6) and Heap(5). So I would be saying that a 8,998-grained collection of sand is a heap, but that a 8,997-grained collection of sand is not a heap.

By this same logic, we cannot determine at which point something is no longer ethical and is torture. (Say A is torture, and Z is not torture. If A is torture, then so is B, and if B is torture, then so is C…and if Y is torture, then so is Z. We have arrived at a contradiction! However, we are certain that (ethical acts (x)) are (not torture (x)), so not ethical acts (¬x) are not (not torture) (¬(¬x)); in other words: torture. (Using syllogistic logic, though there exists a theory that states that it is not necessarily the case that not not P is P).

For simplicity in illustrating this, I will equate “not torture” with “ethical”. So, there must be some point at which an ethical act, or (not torture), becomes torture, but where that point lies is unclear. So, there exist some “borderline cases”, which, put simply, is a group of points, around the center of the scale, one of which could potentially be the point at which the act turns from (not torture) ethical to torture. They are borderline cases because we cannot tell which point is the turning point. If we indicate a singular point and ask two different people whether that point marks an ethical act or torture, the two people may give two different answers.

One argument might be that this point is not immediately obvious because there exist different degrees of torture, and as we move further away from 100% torture, the degree of torture lessens, until we arrive at 0% torture, or 100% not torture/ethical. This Degree Theory presents a possible solution to the above paradox. However, we are now faced with a new paradox: Zeno’s Paradox.

Degree theory creates infinitely many degrees of torture. To even transition from one degree of torture to another, we need to transition through infinitely many degrees in between those degrees of torture. We are faced with an asymptotic relationship, which, applied to this case, simply means that there are infinitely many degrees of torture before 0 (100% ethical, 100% not torture, 0% torture). For example, between 9 and 8 there are infinitely many numbers I must transition through to reach 8. Degree Theory does act as a solution to the Forced-March Sorites Paradox, but brings to light other paradoxes. (See What the Tortoise Said to Achilles for a more complete picture. I accept this as true for the sake of brevity).



Analyzing language has led us to a seemingly unsolvable question. And yet, this is the approach we are taking to resolve the controversy. Must we call something ‘torture’ to rule it out as a method of interrogation? We are spending too much time wondering what the word ‘torture’ means, when we should be wondering whether this particular method is an acceptable means of combatting terrorism. I can stipulate any definition I want to a word.

For example, the United States stipulated a definition to the word “torture”. Though “severe mental pain or suffering” qualifies as torture, what qualifies as “severe mental pain or suffering” does not include waterboarding. If the United States had said that:

(A) the intentional infliction, threatened infliction, or simulated infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

rather than:

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

then waterboarding would qualify as torture according to the United States code. A word can mean whatever we want it to mean, because it is we who define the word. E.g. “torture” did not have a semantic meaning until we gave it one. It is the concept—the action—that we want to discuss, not the language. We must not be bound by our own use of language. We must break down the argument not to language, but to logic. The question is not, “Is waterboarding torture?”, but rather, “Is an attack on the psyche an acceptable mode of interrogation?”. If no, then what do we currently define as “interrogation”?

The controversy that arose over the waterboarding incident is doomed to remain unresolved if we remain slaves to our own invented language. We must not argue over terminology, but concepts. The language of torture leads us into paradox. The purpose of the screening of the Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon was not to determine what constitutes torture. It was to consider how to deal with the threat of insurrection and appropriate methods of extracting information. If we are caught up in the paradoxes of language, we will make no progress in resolving this controversy. It is time we approach the question from a different angle: Can the United States allow and justify waterboarding if doing so would mean that we cannot complain if it is employed in the future by other regimes on captive US citizens?



1 –

2 – The Sunday Times, November 2, 2008

3 – Sainsbury, M. and Williamson, T. 1995. Sorites in B. Hale and C. Wright (eds), Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell.