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Tortured Logic



It’s official. The United States condones torture. And thanks to government documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, we’ve got a rough idea of how our nation’s departments of Defense and Justice define this nefarious practice.

Put simply, torture has got to be really awful to be considered, well, torture. In fact, for torture to be torture, it must be almost bad enough to kill. “Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” reads an August 2002 memo by Jay S. Bybee, assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General John Ashcroft. What fun.

The lengthy memo also states that a president’s orders and directives could rightly ignore any law, national or international, banning torture during wartime. “In light of the President’s complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, we will not read a criminal statute as infringing on the President’s ultimate authority in these areas.”

Wording doesn’t get more chilling. The vast majority of Americans, it seems, reacted to these revelations with a collective yawn.

Torture is a tricky subject in times when some want nothing more than to see every last al-Qaeda operative hung by his or her entrails from the nearest telephone pole. Penning an editorial about what a great guy Ray Charles was would be far easier. But torture must be addressed for the simple reason that when it’s used recklessly, or even at all, we lose vast moral ground. It’s a tactic filled with denial, as John Conroy discovered in his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People. “I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like,” he wrote.

There are even arguments about its ultimate effectiveness. Someone in extreme pain will tell you anything you want to hear. And if 70 percent of Abu Ghraib inmates were held by mistake, as the Red Cross reported, there’s the question of harming innocents.

Another leaked memo, this one by Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo, was written for a Central Intelligence Agency bored with its interrogation “techniques.” These involved “water pits” forcing subjects to stand as tall as possible to keep from drowning, along with threats to “f—k” the detainee’s mother. The good folks at the CIA wanted to know the outer limits of acceptable torture.

So did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon when it came to Guantanamo Bay. So, in March 2003, it incorporated Yoo’s memo for new guidelines regarding what would pass muster. The “water pit”? Gone, apparently. Threats of familial rape? Gone, too, apparently.

But, according to The Washington Post, Rumsfeld left 24 approved techniques in place. Are they better, or worse, than techniques used before Yoo’s memo was issued? We might never know. The Pentagon ain’t telling us what they are. Neither was Ashcroft who, in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month told Sen. Patrick Leahy, “I’m not going to comment on the memos and advice that I give to executive departments of government.” Thankfully, the press found these memos for us.

However, Ashcroft assured Leahy and our own Sen. Orrin Hatch that no laws or treaties centered into or followed by the United States were being broken. Surely he didn’t mean that pesky old 1994 law prohibiting torture by U.S. military personnel, or the 1996 War Crimes Act, which prohibits Americans from violating the Geneva Conventions. As for President Bush, he told the world during a recent press conference following the G-8 Summit that “What I’ve authorized is that we stay within U.S. law.”

And how do we as a nation currently define the words “torture” and “law”? Refer to Bybee’s disturbing, 50-page memo.