It might be for the best to read my "Inconceivable!" post from the relatively recent past before reading the rest of this post.
Again, I was randomly thinking of sci-fi stuff, and The Matrix somehow crossed my mind. (I'm not a big fan, especially given its massive reality holes, but it's got a few points.) I got to thinking of the scene from the first movie (I try not to remember that there were others after that) where Agent Smith is trying to find out from Morpheus the passwords for or location of Zion, or something like that. And I started thinking, if these Agents et al. are totally in control of the Matrix in this hypothetical world, why does it seem that they're giving Morpheus some kind of truth serum, when they're in total control of his world? I mean, compared to what they should be capable of imposing on him, the Bush regime's waterboarding & wiring up etc. would be pretty tame.
And then, something popped into my head in connection with this, which I've sort of known for a while now, but which hadn't made quite such an immediate connection as of yet: I've expected for a short while now, that fairly soon, we'll be technically capable of tapping in to the neural inputs of the brain, to some degree. And I would think that one of the very simplest things to do, along these lines, would be the simulation of pure, raw pain. (If I had to guess, given the current state of the art (i.e., monkeys being able to control arms and such), I'd expect this in between five and twenty years, a rather broad span.)
And this lead, inevitably, to the thought: If we did gain the technical capability to simulate such complete and thorough pain, where would that leave our current policies on torture? I divvied it up into a few different possibilities: Does "organ failure" mean a level of pain similar to organ failure, or the actual threat of organ failure? If the former, then pain stimulation can totally bypass any such rule. Similar questions surround the matter of whether "cruel and unusual punishment" describes any hypothetical torture technique that might cause incredible psychic damage, but leave no physical scars at all. (In case it isn't obvious, I think it would be "cruel and unusual", but I can see where other might argue otherwise once it were possible.) And for further specifics, is risk of death a significant factor in torture? If one can somehow simulate, e.g., waterboarding to one's heart's content, day in and day out, without risk of actually causing death at all, does that make it all peachy kean, and hunky dory? What about the chances of actual physical damage to get the answers one wants (regardless of the matter of whether the answers the torturer wants are actually informative)? Again, if you can simulate any level of pain desired (on the part of the torturer), what's the point of that jibber-jabber about "major organ damage"?
Now yes, you can say that, for the moment, this is all sci-fi kind of consideration, and nothing about which to get your panties in a bunch. But, much like my fears of airplanes used as weapons, it could easily become reality rather too soon. And I can't help thinking about how the recent discussions comparing levels of torture to "major organ damage" could too easily facilitate the kind of torture that could leave permanent psychic damage, even leave one psychologically completely crippled for the rest of one's life, as long as it didn't actually cause any physical damage to biological organs, per se.
And if that door were opened, I fear for us all, because the Eighth Amendment could be interpreted to be practically meaningless, as far as the "cruelty" part is concerned. After a Supreme Court ruling that might approve of such methods in extreme circumstances, the "cruelty" clause of the 8th would become virtually meaningless, given any kind of capacity for neural simulation of pain (probably one of the very simplest methods of neural stimulation). After that, torture techniques could pretty much completely ignore all the damage done to the psyche of the subject, and any rehabilitation or therapy they might require to return them to society (granted, assuming they were a member of society in the first place, but a big part of the context of the Constitution & Bill of Rights is that we can't trust government entirely to judge such things right off the bat) would just be so much water under the bridge; not the government's responsibility at all, and so what if they might be incapable of relating to other humans thereafter, or even have been turned from a well-balanced, peaceful person into a sociopath by the pain to which they've been subjected.
While this all probably seems pretty out-there at the current time (even to myself), it's almost inevitable that, sooner or later (maybe even later than the twenty years I mention as a likely max), it will come to pass. And when that time comes, we will either find ourselves having to figure out the morality of such techniques from scratch, or we will have the precedent already laid out for us, in precedents that were adjudicated in cases having nothing to do with such possibilities. And if those judgments rely on such simplistic definitions as "major organ damage," we could be in for a world of hurt. So to speak.