Episode 2. Jessica Wolfendale on Torture Lite

It’s been three years since George Bush announced that the United States does not engage in torture. Since then, a continuous stream of information has indicated that, although Jack Bauer–style brutality is officially prohibited, the U.S. officially sanctions and regularly employs interrogation tactics that push legal and moral boundaries. In today’s episode, Jessica Wolfendale sits down with Christian Barry to determine where those boundaries lie.

Specifically, Wolfendale is interested in the term “torture lite” and the distinction it attempts to draw between primarily physical techniques and more psychological ones. In her words, there is “torture, which is violent, physically mutilating, cruel, and brutal, and torture lite, which refers to interrogation methods (such as extended sleep deprivation, noise bombardment, and forced standing) that are, it is claimed, more restrained and less severe than real torture.”

Wolfendale denies this distinction. There’s no legitimate reason to authorize practices like extended sleep deprivation but deny old-fashioned beatings. Torture lite techniques produce lasting effects, both physical and psychological, that are profoundly harmful. And they have pernicious effects for the torturers and the institutions that authorize themselves. In order to be useful, these techniques require interrogation sessions that can last for weeks, months or even longer. They require networks of interrogators who practice these techniques on all the prisoners who pass before them. As Wolfendale puts it, torture lite lends itself to institutionalization.

This notion of institutionalization also speaks against the ever-popular ticking bomb scenario. If it takes weeks of interrogation to produce useful intelligence, then torture lite won’t be much help to Jack Bauer.

All that and more. Enjoy.

Jessica Wolfendale is a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne division of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

Click here to download (38:31, 26.5 mb, mp3), or click on the online media player below. You can also download the transcript.


Christian and Jessica refer to a number of books and papers in their discussion. Here are those links.

Wolfendale’s draft paper from which this discussion flows: “Torture Lite and the Normalisation of Torture.”

Her book, Torture and the Military Profession (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

The Charles Dickens quote in the intro comes from ch. 7, “Philadelphia, and Its Solitary Penitentiary” in American Notes.

The David Sussman article Christian refers to is David Sussman, “What’s Wrong with Torture?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 33, no. 1 (2005): 1–33.

Alan Dershowitz sets out the case for torture warrants in, among other places, Alan Dershowitz, “Want to Torture? Get a Warrant,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2002, p. A19. The reference to a purportedly successful ticking-bomb interrogation in the Philippines comes from his Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 137.

Christian quotes Mark Bowden as writing, “Few moral imperatives make such sense on a large scale but break down so dramatically in the particular.” This line comes from Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” Atlantic Monthly, October 2003.

1 Comment

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One response to “Episode 2. Jessica Wolfendale on Torture Lite

  1. Pingback: Sunday Reading « Bad Conscience

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