Legal guidance provided for in 18 U.S.C. 2340(1) — that’s a bill from US Congress — clearly lists death threats as a form of inflicting “severe… mental suffering,” which is the key to determining whether an act constitutes torture or not. This week Newsweek reported that the CIA threatened the terrorist suspected in the bombing of the USS Cole with a gun and a power drill. In addition, the CIA staged a mock execution in the room next door to the interrogation.
Why should we consider death threats and mock execution as torture? If we consider Basoglu’s research (see June 23, 2009 entry of this blog) that shows that the psychological effects of torture are more impactful than the physical assault (i.e., produce the psychopathological reactions), we can see that death threats made in settings in which their “success” is likely (i.e., whether they have a high perceived probability of actually being fulfilled) are quintessential torture experiences. The context of powerlessness in the face of extreme pain or death is the determining factor.