You can blame Nick Harkaway – or rather, his thoughts on waterboarding – for this post, which began life as a comment on his blog. So: my thoughts on the subject of simulated torture.

“Simulated drowning” makes the whole question of waterboarding sound like a question of virtual reality. Which is intriguing.

Say someone developed a perfect VR machine and plugged in a suspected terrorist without that person’s knowledge. For days, weeks or hours, the suspect undergoes what they believe to be excruciating physical torture, when in fact it’s all just skillful, pain-and-sensory simulated VR. Having subsequently divulged their information or, if innocent, made up enough to satisfy their captors, they are then unplugged, waking – disoriented and frightened – to find themselves whole and strapped to a table, their flesh undamaged.

Which begs the question: in this hypothetical instance, has the Geneva Convention actually been violated? Given the fact of psychological torture, one would think so, because the intent was the same as if actual torture had been employed, a sort of Orwellian examination of the limits of human endurance. Which would, by inference, suggest that simulated drowning, despite the name, cannot be differentiated from torture, the entire point of which is not to kill, but to extract information under threat of pain and the fear of more to come. How anyone can believe waterboarding doesn’t fall into this category is beyond me; but if a VR torture chamber were invented, would anyone condone its use as a more ‘moral’ alternative to conventional torture purely on the basis that no physical harm was done?

The thought of people responding in the affirmative frightens me.

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