The UN’s response

Not surprisingly, the United Nations is on top of the taser issue, although whether there’ll be any practical implications of this is dubious. Still, the decision is interesting:

“The use of these weapons causes acute pain, constituting a form of torture,” the UN’s Committee against Torture said.

“In certain cases, they can even cause death, as has been shown by reliable studies and recent real-life events,” the committee of 10 experts said.

Through all the debate, no one has mentioned the word torture, as far as I have heard. According to the international definition (Wikipedia’s international!!!), torture is described as:

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Whether tasering constitutes torture is  not as black-and-white as something such as, say, waterboarding. To label tasering as such, two things need to be considered: Severity and purpose. The severity isn’t too hard, although the relatively short pain period suffered by the victim ( I think? Perhaps it’s more drawn-out than I thought) could cause a debate over just how severe it is. Harder to determine is the purpose. Obviously the use is not to obtain a confession, but could it be construed as punishing or intimidating? Since the victim is rendered immobile, I would say intimidation isn’t so much a factor. Threat of tasering would be intimidation, but since the end result does not depend on the person mentally acceding to the demands of the policeman, it’d be hard to make a case. But certainly punishment could be a perceived purpose, whether preemptive or reactive, depending on the offender’s composure.

That being said, it’s not surprising the issue of torture hasn’t come into play here until now. I know I never would have taken the time to consider that possible interpretation until it was suggested by the United Nations. And surely that “what if?” isn’t going to be sufficient to stop taser usage, since it’s not really contributing to a solution. If every form of physical pain used to hinder — punish? — potential criminals (pepper spray, for example?) were to be declared “torture”, there’d be a mob threatening to tear down the Parliament every other week. As 49er pointed out, no officer should be expected to “single-handedly out-wrestle a berserk desperado” (and phrased so nicely, too)! That means that sometimes, causing physical pain is going to be the lesser of two evils. But the article does have another interesting point, which I think is far more relevant.

Apparently,  there have been three taser-induced deaths in Canada alone over the last five weeks!

That’s a whole new ball-game. Forget torture; In this instance, I would reassert that tasers should be considered lethal!!! Sure, it depends on  specific circumstances, but (once again, as 49er brought up) those circumstances are not well researched and documented, and, I would add, neither would it be particularly useful if they were. I suspect many of them would depend on a person’s heart and inner conditioning, rather than any overt physical characteristics, and so the situation would be either impossible or incredibly difficult for the police to judge. In high-pressure situations, there simply isn’t time to make such a call with any degree of accuracy. The question is really one of “to tase or not to tase.”

And, since shooting the person would clearly be frowned upon, I think it’s pretty clear that the answer is not to tase.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephen
    Nov 25, 2007 @ 15:45:14

    I think I would put tasering in the category of the need to balance competing interests. That is something that the court system struggles with all the time.

    For example, it is legal for a police officer to shoot someone in order to prevent the person from harming someone else. Here the “public good” outweighs the use of potentially lethal force against the individual.

    The use of tasers could be defensible: particularly if it is shown that deaths are a freak occurrence (i.e., it happens only in a very small minority of instances, usually where there are other risk factors present (e.g. a weak heart).

    The fact that Canada is seeing so many deaths by tasering means either death isn’t an unusual occurrence, or police are using this tactic very, very frequently. Either explanation is possible.

    The Dziekanski case is particularly alarming (a) because he had already been treated so shabbily by airport personnel (unable to communicate, trapped in the airport and separated from his mother, who was trying to help him, for eight or ten hours!); and (b) because the police didn’t utilize tasers as a last resort but tasered him immediately.

    Clearly, tasers are potentially lethal — I’ll grant you that much — and must therefore be used as a last resort, when a person is a clear risk to himself and/or others. I don’t think Dziekanski was in that category. Throwing around some chairs doesn’t cut it!

    As for the UN’s use of the word “torture”, I don’t know what to make of that. I think we’d need more information, which is basically what you say in your post.

    But I’ll say this much: the purpose of tasering is certainly not to cause pain and fear (whereas that is precisely the purpose of waterboarding) but to subdue an out-of-control individual. So my first instinct is to think that the UN is blurring the issue here.


  2. 49erDweet
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 03:22:15

    Good stuff from both of you. And I believe Stephen is correct re: the approved “purpose” of tasering to gain control in a potentially dangerous situation, not saying some officers haven’t jumped the gun on occasion.

    My first reaction over the UN’s position was to laugh, but then in considering how wide the gap [there goes a sneaky way to bring my long-dormant blog into the conversation] exists between humanitarian standards of policing around the world – PARTICULARLY in some non-western countries – it dawned on me a Taser could indeed have already found it’s way from the patrol division to the interrogation room, and using it there indeed should be considered “torture” imho. Something it was not intended to do.

    I know a subject’s physical condition plays in important part in how “being tasered” affects them. If they are combative and high on drugs it sometimes takes three or four “episodes” of tasering within a short time to “gain their cooperation”, and conversely if they have certain health issues even one “hit” can sometimes trigger too severe a reaction. So I agree it is a potentially lethal weapon, but is it too lethal? That’s a judgement call for each society, probably, but clearly throwing chairs around an airport is not in and of itself enough to justify such a rapid decision by the officers. And since I wasn’t there, I don’t know if anything else was involved in that decision. I suspect, though, that even if eventually cleared each of the four will think long and hard before using that weapon again.



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