Needles Under the Nails

by Kieran Healy on March 15, 2005

The effort to normalize torture proceeds on two fronts. The first comes up with scenarios where torture seems justified—the ticking bomb case that we know and love. As we know, real torture never meets the criteria that even seemingly reasonable ticking-bomb hypos demand. The scenario depends on the prospective torturer knowing everything relevant about the circumstances except one thing (viz, the location of the bomb and the time it will explode), which the suspect knows, and we know they know. This never happens. Instead, torture is generally a much more protracted affair, carried on with much less information about what the suspect knows or even who the proper suspects are. Nevertheless, as we saw the other day, the ticking-bomb still exerts a considerable hold over people’s minds. Why?

I think it’s because it’s an effective slippery-slope. If you get me to agree to torturing someone when there’s a ticking bomb, then how hard is it to get me to agree to the following case: we’ve picked up ten guys for questioning but only one of them has the true information. We don’t know which one, so we have to torture the lot. Isn’t torture still justified? Think of the children who’ll be incinerated in that nuclear explosion. Preventing that is surely as close to an infinite payoff as we can manage. Now, it has to be true that the more suspected terrorists we pick up, the greater the certainty we have that at least one of them has the relevant vital information. And maybe the bomb won’t go off this afternoon, but they’re certainly building it. At least, they certainly want to build it. Pretty soon you have me agreeing to just rounding people up on the off chance that they know something unspecified—or know someone who might know something—about an unspecified plan to harm us all. And this is what the systematic practice of torture looks like in actual practice anyway.

The second front in the pro-torture offensive is the effort to blur the distinction between torture and “mere” pressure or extreme interrogation. In the car this morning I heard a discussion of this question on the news. When CT had a discussion about the philosophy of vagueness earlier this month some commenters derided the waste of analytic effort on such a fatuous topic. But here we have a real-world example right in this area. In the report, a military lawyer from West Point cautioned against drawing a bright line between torture and “mere” abuse—by making a list of banned practices, for instance—because that just challenges torturers to come up with something that’s not on the list. Any number of surviving victims of state-sponsored violence will tell you that torturers can be very inventive indeed. But despite the evidence that torture almost always devolves into a sordid and pointless routine, the temptation to put a brave face on the deliberately inflicted suffering of others remains irresistible to many. Here, for example, is Alan Dershowitz speaking in the news report:

When you torture somebody to death … everybody would acknowledge that’s torture. But placing a sterilized needle under somebody’s fingernails for fifteen minutes, causing excruciating pain but no permanent physical damage—is that torture?

Gee, I don’t know, Alan. Let’s find out! Why don’t you drop by this afternoon? I’ll bring the needles and the bunsen burner, you bring Alberto Gonzales. Or better yet—why not grab your daughter, if you have one, and we’ll get the empirical evidence from her. Dershowitz is clearly at the point where he’d be happy to sign a form authorizing the sort of violence against human beings that he wouldn’t dream of personally inflicting on his dog. I’m sure he has a copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem somewhere in his office. He should re-read it.

By the end of the report, we’re left with an interesting contrast: A Harvard law professor is advocating needles under the fingernails, while a West Point officer is arguing that you just can’t justify this stuff under any circumstances. Which do you think has the better understanding of the dangers of state-sponsored violence? Perhaps the most disturbing lesson from the current wave of rationalization is the ease with which people will begin to strip away first the legal rights and then the common humanity of others. Sometimes this is done with a macho attitude (“What’s the matter, can’t handle the reality of interrogation, ya wuss?”) and sometimes it’s done with an exquisite expression of regret for the suffering one is being forced to inflict (“These are desperate times and I do not undertake these actions lightly …”). Either way, you end up in the same place. As Solzhenitsyn says somewhere, the tragedy of human beings is that, while they remain alive, there is always something else you can do to them.

Update: Jim Henley makes a very similar argument about where the ticking bomb argument goes.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Outside The Beltway
03.16.05 at 3:06 pm
Meade’s Maxim » Torture Excuses
03.17.05 at 9:53 am
Crooked Timber » » Eugene Volokh jumps the shark
03.17.05 at 10:39 am
FatMixx » When in torture OK?
04.03.05 at 1:15 am

{ 93 comments }

1

KCinDC 03.15.05 at 12:05 pm

I heard that segment on NPR as well and couldn’t believe Dershowitz’s “needle under the fingernail” question. September 11 really drove a lot of people insane, causing them to abandon beliefs they seemed to be dedicated to, and for many the condition seems permanent.

2

Des von Bladet 03.15.05 at 12:10 pm

But placing a sterilized needle under somebody’s fingernails for fifteen minutes, causing excruciating pain but no permanent physical damage—is that torture?

There is an entity on the loose that wishes me to mistake that for a question? Fucking fuck!

3

Young Irelander 03.15.05 at 12:11 pm

I can’t argue with kcindc’s point about insanity.
Needles under nails?I think the onus is on people to pull back from the brink of insanity before it’s too late.

4

P O\'Neill 03.15.05 at 12:25 pm

To adapt a favourite right-wing rhetorical flourish, if you’re debating the details of the torture, then the torturers have already won. Opponents should not get trapped and should stick to 2 arguments: (1) torture doesn’t work and (2) torture destroys your soul. Now Mickey Kaus and Jonah Goldberg will pop up to dispute (1). But they have no answer for (2).

5

pierre 03.15.05 at 12:36 pm

“September 11 really drove a lot of people insane, causing them to abandon beliefs they seemed to be dedicated to, and for many the condition seems permanent.”
I don’t think it made people insane, it just made them show their true colors. Before 9/11 there were a bunch of “liberals” that identified with liberalism not on the merits, but because liberals had better parties, better music, more fun. Since 9/11 they’ve succumbed to their own cowardice, and if pressed they claim to have always been libertarians.

Very few people actually understand what it is that they themselves think. It’s painful to watch supposedly responsible public figures undergoing their personal self-discovery with so much at stake.

6

JoeO 03.15.05 at 12:48 pm

I hold Alan Dershowitz partially responsible for the torture that the US has already done. His book “Shouting Fire” (and 60 minutes apearance) advocating clean needle torture in the mythical ticking bomb situation came out in January 2002, soon after 9/11. It greatly added to the normalization of torture.

7

Katherine 03.15.05 at 12:50 pm

The “where do you draw the line” thing is a fairly transparent attempt at changing the subject.
During Gonzales’ confirmation hearings, many of the Democratic Senators repeatedly asked him what techniques had and had not been approved; which technqiues were torture, which were merely cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and which were neither. Gonzales refused to answer, every single time. He wouldn’t even rule out mock executions and waterboarding. He claimed that revealing any information about what techniques were authorized or forbidden would give terrorists a road map of U.S. interrogation techniques that would undermine our intelligence-gathering abilities.
That argument would apply equally to a statute that listed techniques that were forbidden forms of torture, and techniques that were permitted forms of “aggressive interrogation”. And if there’s never a way to enforce the line we draw, a debate about exactly where to draw it is a pointless distraction. Nine times out of ten it is a deliberate pointless distraction.

8

bi 03.15.05 at 1:02 pm

I have to agree. The right question is not “where do you draw the line?” but “how often does it work, and how often does it give reliable information?”
Although when pressured, the self-proclaimed “anti-idiotarian” will probably just spew some knee-jerk response or other.

9

ernie 03.15.05 at 1:03 pm

So how do we regain sanity and stop the torture?

10

Ginger Yellow 03.15.05 at 1:18 pm

That is indeed insane. Where on earth does the idea come from that any amount of pain is “OK” as long as there’s no “permanent damage”? Seriously. I can scarcely believe we’re discussing this in the 21st century, but take this example. You’re a suspect. You have the choice of 15 minutes of needles under the fingernails, or a broken arm. Which do you take? Surely the latter.

11

jet 03.15.05 at 1:20 pm

then how hard is it to get me to agree to the following case…?
Pretty damned impossible. Can anyone say fallacy?
It is a loooong ways from having a guy you know is involved and has the information to 9 guys who haven’t a clue and just happened to be on the same bus. Like most slippery slope arguments you are left with fortune tellers fighting over if an American is willing to allow a captured criminal caught in the act to be tortured, then he’s willing to torture thousands of innocents. Suuure.

12

bi 03.15.05 at 1:28 pm

It’s not fortune-telling. It’s already happened in the case of Abu Ghraib. Lots of the supposed “terrorists” turned out to be nothing more than small-time crooks.
Again, the question is this: how often has torture been proven to give reliable, useful information?

13

Katherine 03.15.05 at 1:28 pm

The “where do you draw the line” argument is especially irrelevant to rendition, because we’re sending them to countries where we know there is no line, and where the conclusion that a suspect is probably innocent or will not produce anymore usefull intelligence may not end the torture.
Congressman Edward Markey has introduced a bill to ban rendition to torture. If you oppose it, please consider emailing your Representative and ask them to cosponsor it (or thank them if they’re already on the list of cosponsors.
There isn’t a Senate version yet; there may be relatively soon.

14

HP 03.15.05 at 1:30 pm

Pain without permanent injury is the ideal torture. It is what torture has always aspired to, ever since the thumbscrew displaced breaking on the wheel.
Not to make everyone on both sides feel all squicky, but no one is going to get anywhere debating torture unless the erotic nature of the act is front and center. I’m comfortable saying that I’m opposed to all forms of torture, despite the fact that it titillates me. Are Dershowitz, Gonzales, and their ilk willing to state that their approval of torture is fully independent of their libidinal desires? Are they willing to state, for the record, how they react sexually to portrayals of torture?

15

Katherine 03.15.05 at 1:30 pm

In case that link gets broken, the bill # is H.R. 952, and the official name is the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act. It’s usually helpful to include that in the first line of any email you send.

16

Randolph Fritz 03.15.05 at 1:33 pm

Dershowitz probably doesn’t think of torture as a possibility in his life; West Point officers, on the other hand, are aware of the possibility of capture. Brrr. Brrr.

17

jet 03.15.05 at 1:35 pm

Are they willing to state, for the record, how they react sexually to portrayals of torture?
I need a long hot shower with lots of soap, some incense, a therapist, and a long weekend in the country side to recover from that statement. I’d probably be down with the death penalty for anyone who admits to being sexually stimulated by torture. Fucking sick bastards.

18

bitchphd 03.15.05 at 1:39 pm

It’s not that surprising that the military officer would object to torture, as you say: he’s more likely to understand that anything you say is okay to do to the enemy, you are also saying it’s okay for the enemy to do to us. Which is, unfortunately, the only real argument that will probably work (along with the “let’s invite your daughter over and try it on her, shall we?” argument). Torture is wrong because it just is. But as long as it’s merely an abstraction to people, it’s very easy to rationalize. Making concrete what it means–either by describing, in grisly detail, what it involves, or by pointing out how and why the Geneva Conventions exist, or by calling on people who have actually experienced it to speak about what it’s like, or by asking people to imagine it happening to them–is the most probably effective rhetorical strategy.
Which come to think of it, maybe isn’t a bad thing after all. Torture is, after all, concrete, not abstract. That’s precisely what’s wrong with it.

19

jlw 03.15.05 at 1:39 pm

ernie asks:
“So how do we regain sanity and stop the torture?”

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I imagine it lies in walking back the dog to the point when torture last seemed “normal” and what caused the change in attitude. We in the West used to be pretty cruel fucks. What happened so that most of us now see torture as a sign of moral rot?
Answer that question and you’ll discover the path back to sanity.

20

George 03.15.05 at 1:43 pm

It’s a very slippery slope, all right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can wash your hands of it. I still think the best treatment of this issue was Mark Bowden’s article in The Atlantic a couple years ago, called something like The Dark Art of Persuasion. It is simply a fact that almost every nation practices something that falls between the purity of the Geneva Conventions (which technically allow for no persuasion of any kind, physical or suggested) and what we all would agree is torture. Bowden’s conclusion is that torture (defined however you can manage to define it) must always be forbidden by the letter and the spirit of the law; if an interrogator really believes he’s got a ‘ticking bomb’ case on his hands, he must be personally prepared to take the consequences and put his case before his peers. The overwhelming burden of proof must remain on the shoulders of the interrogator. That’s where I think the US has gone wrong on this issue: not in trying to delineate what is torture and what is not, but in watering down the burden of proof.
That being said, I have an interesting question: does it make any moral/ethical/legal difference if the subject of interrogation is not only a *suspect* in a current case (ticking bomb or otherwise) but a *known* terrorist or other bad type? I’m thinking, for instance, of top Al Qaeda planners, or of the guys who planned the Bojinka Project to down 12 airliners over international waters. The US does have some of those guys in custody. It’s very tempting to think that such a person has forfeited at least some human rights, including possibly the right not to be tortured; if so, the standard for proving the potential benefit of torturing him would be lower. If you’ve got a random terrorist suspect off the street in one room and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the next room, and you think in each case there’s a 5% chance that he knows where the nuke is, does that make a difference?
The question is not facetious, and I’m not trying to contribute to the blurring of the lines. I recognize that this is just another slippery slope in a very slippery field. But I would be interested if any of the philosophes here has any insight on this point. Can the past complicity of the subject (in terrorism, in mass murder) be taken into account in assessing the moral tradeoffs of torture?

21

Ben Alpers 03.15.05 at 1:50 pm

hp, you’re absolutely right about the erotics of torture.
In fact, I’d go even farther. I think a lot of phoney effort is wasted wondering how events like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide could have happened. History suggest that people simply love inflicting pain and death on each other, often in baroque and intricate ways, and that we’re constantly looking for excuses to do so. We should perhaps be surprised that such events don’t happen more often.
I’m an absolutist opponent of torture, but it’s clear to me that the desire to torture reflects a pretty basic human urge. In this regard, as a non-Christian, I’m struck the (moral and psychological) utility of the notion of original sin in simultaneously explaining and condemning such desires. The more secular among us have a more difficult task, both in explaining and dealing with these phenomena. But the answer can’t involve denying the obvious human attractions of barbaric and “inhuman” behavior.

22

mpowell 03.15.05 at 1:58 pm

Thank you George, for a meaningful comment on this issue. I disagree w/ the sentiment P. O’neil expresses earlier (4). Trying to draw the line b/w torture and aggressive interrogation is difficult and treacherous. But if you don’t participate in the discussion, you can be certain your view won’t be taken into account.

23

tib 03.15.05 at 1:59 pm

In that NPR segment Dershowitz argued that it makes sense to torture terrorists and their associates. Dershowitz defended a terrorist in 1972, should defense attorneys be subject to torture? They are more likely than other associates to know useful details of a terrorist’s plans, and surely torture takes less time than a legal proceeding.

24

George 03.15.05 at 2:07 pm

[N]o one is going to get anywhere debating torture unless the erotic nature of the act is front and center.
For an extraordinary evocation of this theme, see Ben Kingley and Sigourney Weaver in Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden.

25

DGF 03.15.05 at 2:13 pm

If opposition to the ticking-bomb scenario hinges upon its extreme unlikelihood, its opponents should have no problem accepting its premises. If the scenario truly is an irrelevant hypothetical, if the probability of each and every one of its prerequisite circumstances arising simultaneously is infinitesimal, then we’ll never find ourselves in it, and thus never have to torture anyone.
Of course, you’d also have to grant the scenario’s categorical distinction from the slippery-slope derivatives Kieran discussed.

26

tad brennan 03.15.05 at 2:14 pm

ben alpers–
one can agree with your point that “the desire to torture reflects a pretty basic human urge”, while disagreeing with hp that the desire is a sexual one. Not all basic desires are sexual ones. The desire for cruelty may in some cases be involved in complicated perversions of sexual desire. In other cases it may stand on its own.
I certainly agree that we obstruct the job of understanding and improving humanity when we “deny the obvious human atractions of barbaric behavior”. But if explanation and understanding are your goal, I don’t think that invocations of “original sin’ will get you very far, either. That has tended to be one of those undefined primitives that only appears to offer explanatory power when instead it merely puts a label on our own lack of comprehension. There may be some “utility”, but probably not much beyond getting us to pay attention to the phenomenon. Then the work of understanding still lies ahead.

27

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.15.05 at 2:17 pm

“The second front in the pro-torture offensive is the effort to blur the distinction between torture and “mere” pressure or extreme interrogation. In the car this morning I heard a discussion of this question on the news.”
This is actually an odd phenonmenon because in peace-time groups like Amnesty International attempt to blur the distinction between torture and other treatment to label as torture all sorts of things that most people wouldn’t think of as torture. Now the reverse is happening. It is too bad, because I think “torture” has a fairly understandable meaning.
The defense for AI I suppose would be that it is better to be overinclusive rather than underinclusive. But their muddying of the term has kind of backfired, because the charge made by proponents of torture that humanitarian groups treat all sorts of legitmate techniques as “torture” is well founded. I’m not pro-torture, I’m merely pointing out how stretching the term well beyond the common understanding has turned against us now that we want to fight actual torture.

28

Barry Freed 03.15.05 at 2:20 pm

Holy shit you’re right.
We’ll have to torture everyone if we’re ever going to win this war. Where do I check in?

29

John Isbell 03.15.05 at 2:27 pm

Tracking the moment when torture became unacceptable, I’d suggest a look at Beccaria, c.1760. Delle (degli?) delitte e delle pene.

30

joel turnipseed 03.15.05 at 2:31 pm

I have had a couple friends who’ve attended the Army POW school and can say from experiences they related to me from there that torture is not only wrong, but mostly unnecessary: a few days’ sleep-deprivation under the right rhetorical circumstances, followed by a long squat in an ice-water filled 55-gallon drum, will get most questions answered satisfactorily. That is why the most sensitive information is distributed on a need-to-know basis, where need is limited to very few people (sometimes even those executing the mission do not know the full details). Which is to say, echoing remarks on the West Pointer’s pragmatism, I think the body of the Army MI community is probably genuinely aghast at events like Abu Ghraib.
The problem is, there is a long tradition in US of violence-worship (see the Slotkin books, especially “Regeneration through Violence” — or the new Hoberman book on Hollywood’s change of temper from 60s to 80s) and that there is an element of military culture that revels in this and the civilians responsible in our democracy for directing them just as easily lack the imagination to overcome this fantasy and reign these folks in. I don’t know what the answer is, honestly, but I do know that intelligent discussion with good military officers will be part of it and that I agree with those like Beinart at TNR that until the Left learns to use it’s own imagination concerning the military, we face an uphill battle.

31

Elliott Oti 03.15.05 at 2:32 pm

This is actually an odd phenonmenon because in peace-time groups like Amnesty International attempt to blur the distinction between torture and other treatment to label as torture all sorts of things that most people wouldn’t think of as torture.
Examples?
I’m not pro-torture, I’m merely pointing out how stretching the term well beyond the common understanding has turned against us now that we want to fight actual torture.
The biggest hindrance in the “fight” against “actual torture” is not Amnesty’s wishy-washiness, it is jingoistic apologia.

32

Ginger Yellow 03.15.05 at 2:42 pm

Sebastian, care to give a concrete example of AI calling a legitimate technique torture? To make a petty political point, it strikes me that voting back in the people who set up a torture system has turned against us now we want to fight actual torture.

33

Elliott Oti 03.15.05 at 2:50 pm

To clarify my response to Holsclaw, the US puports to be a free, democratic country with a government directly accountable to its electorate.
To accuse humanitarian organizations – interest groups with no special governmental status or powers – of muddying the debate about torture is to divest the government and its citizenry of any form of moral compass whatsoever. It is doubly dishonest in that it accords groups like AI the power to define the terms of debate vis-a-vis torture (“For years Amnesty has been telling us what torture is and isn’t – and we listened”), but when convenient ignores them completely (“Now Amnesty is telling us what we are doing is torture – and we’re not listening”).
Either humanitarian groups are the final arbiters of what torture is or isn’t – in which case they get to say so today as well, politically inconvenient as that may be – or they are not the final arbiters, in which case you get off your lazy ass and present your own moral compass for inspection without obfuscation.

34

John Isbell 03.15.05 at 3:03 pm

Holsclaw was one of the few GOP bloggers condemning torture back when Abu Ghraib broke, IIRC and FWIW.

35

Doctor Slack 03.15.05 at 3:07 pm

“I’m not pro-torture, I’m merely pointing out how stretching the term well beyond the common understanding has turned against us now that we want to fight actual torture.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, I think this is horseshit. Here’s a simple thought experiment: pick an act that you think AI has used to “stretch the term” torture. Now imagine it being done to an American serviceman by a terrorist. How likely are you to still be quibbling about whether it’s according-to-Hoyle torture or not?
Until Abu Ghraib, this was not the sort of thing that needed explaining to most people. In fact, pro-war partisans were fond of citing Saddam’s torture chambers and “rape rooms” for psychological and physical torture; yet many of these same people, confronted with Abu Ghraib, suddenly discovered the joys of prevaricating and hair-splitting and parsing whether or not psychological torture is really torture, or whether beating or water-boarding someone is really torture. Suddenly, so much of the moralizing was revealed as hollow, and rotten… and too many people were outed as indifferent to that fact, or even as celebrating it.
That’s one of the ethical and political Rubicons — alongside things like secret military tribunals, extraordinary rendition and open “first strike” military policies — that’s going to set the Bush era apart. It’s one of the things that marks the present American Republic as a less inspiring and far less respected thing than what has gone before it. And it’s amazing how many self-styled pundits and analysts still don’t have the slightest inkling of that.
“History suggest that people simply love inflicting pain and death on each other, often in baroque and intricate ways, and that we’re constantly looking for excuses to do so.”
I think history suggests that there are specific circumstances in which various societies lose sight of the taboos that restrict that sort of behaviour, one important aspect being if they’re scared enough to do so that a “normal” moral calculus seems somehow weak and treasonous. The real question is: once a movement has figured out how to really exploit that kind of fear and the depravity it can engender, how does one counter it?

36

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.15.05 at 3:08 pm

Sure, for instance there is “The death penalty as a form of torture”.
There is this report which freely interchanges the term ‘torture’ and ‘abuse’.
“US law enforcement agencies deploy a variety of so-called “non-lethal” weapons to subdue resisting suspects, including electro-shock weapons, batons and chemical sprays. International standards encourage the development of non-lethal incapacitating weapons, in order to decrease the risk of death or injury. However, the standards also state that these should be ”carefully evaluated” and that ”the use of such weapons should be carefully controlled”.(17) However, there is inadequate monitoring of the deployment of non-lethal weapons in the USA, particularly pepper spray and stun devices which are increasingly used and which have been associated with deaths, torture and ill-treatment.”
“A growing number of US law enforcement agencies are also using remote-controlled electro-shock stun belts to restrain prisoners (mainly during transportation and in courtrooms). The belts are designed to inflict severe pain and instant incapacitation at the push of a button, through a 50,000 volt electrical charge which passes through the wearer’s kidney. Amnesty International believes that the use of stun belts, even without their activation, is inherently cruel and degrading, and it has called for them to be banned. However, they continue to be used in more than 100 US jurisdictions, including in the US Marshal’s Service (a federal police agency).”
AI often alleges sleep deprivation without alleging the very prolonged sleep deprivation which is torture. The failure to distinguish between the two doesn’t help since mild or moderate sleep deprivation is considered a very effective interrogation technique.

37

ernie 03.15.05 at 3:11 pm

“Dei delitti e delle pene” by Beccaria does look like an excellent enlightenment treatise on this subject. And I’ve written my congressman to support the Torture Prevention Act. Still, we need to convince the people that torture is always immoral.

38

Rob 03.15.05 at 4:11 pm

On a mostly unrelated note, whilst obviously both are torture, and as such unacceptable, I’ve managed to get splinters down my fingernails, which I imagine is rather like having needles there, and while it is very painful, I think I’d take it over having my arm broken.
Also, I second the thought that it’s important to engage in the debate about exactly what counts as torture (or at least unacceptable interrogation technique). If we can’t say what it is, it’s going to be difficult to say what’s wrong with it (obviously that statement excludes acts which are self-evidently wrong: no one needs to explain why beating someone half to death is wrong, although we may well need to force the wrongness of it on people by examples, which isn’t quite the same thing).

39

Doctor Slack 03.15.05 at 4:19 pm

“[An AI report] freely interchanges the term ‘torture’ and ‘abuse’.”
Of course it does. It’s a report about US compliance with the anti-torture convention which makes no distinctions about whether a transgression of the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or confinement is “torture” or just “abuse.” In fact, one of the main bones of contention is US attempts to limit the treaty by narrowing its definition of torture by “understandings” and redefining the terms involved.
Aside from that, you’re misrepresenting AI’s position on the death penalty and shock belts by conveniently eliding the specific nature of their objections, which are to the conditions common on “death row” (and relatively lax standards for use of the death penalty), and the openness of shock belts to abuses that would be nigh impossible to track or prove. And if you’re in all seriousness arguing that batons, pepper spray and tasers can’t be used to mete out torture… well, that kind of makes the point for me.
All of this does indicate one of the big blind spots through which the pro-torture lobby has slipped: many Americans are so resigned to the abusive and pathological nature of their vast prison system that it simply doesn’t occur to them that things taking place within it could in fact be cruel and inhuman punishment (torture). So it’s worth wondering if a culture of permissiveness toward torture on domestic soil has greased the skids for much more serious manifestations of it in the so-called “war on terror.” I think it probably has.
Someone, somewhere, has probably already done a study on this, but it would be interesting to see a good treatment of the mirroring of America’s declining civic culture in on-screen entertainment. It’s been common for some time for screen detectives to threaten criminals with the inevitability of prison rape, just as it’s common now for some of the same on-screen gumshoes to gleefully trot out the PATRIOT Act and threaten the bad guys with the kind of reprisals that used to be associated with foreign police states. And as Jim Henley has pointed out, torture may be on a similar trajectory. It makes you wonder if we’ll be watching the cops on NYPD Blue’s descendants beating, electrocuting and waterboarding people… and be expected to empathize with them.

40

Ginger Yellow 03.15.05 at 4:21 pm

Thanks for the links.
The first one seems entirely fair to me – the actual document doesn’t equate the death penalty with torture, merely suggests that school children consider how the implementation of the death penalty in the US looks in the context of the convention on torture and UN declaration on human rights. The only “blurring” I see is when they say that torture is fundamentally about stripping people of their human dignity and worth, and ask whether being on death row similarly strips people of their human dignity and worth, and hence rights. Seems a fair question to me.
The second document is a response on the US’s implementation of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Of course they’re going to include abuse as well as outright torture. In fact, the “abuses” you cite, quite clearly come under the section headed “Police Brutality and Excessive Force”, not the section headed “Torture and Ill-Treatment in Prisons and Jails”. The fact that non-lethal weapons are used for torture is mentioned when they are introduced in the police brutality section, but the description of the actual torture is in the torture section. Where’s the obfuscation there?
I don’t mean to be particularly confrontational here. I acknowledge that you have and continue to speak out against torture. But I find your readiness to pass the blame to the very people who have fought so hard to bring it to light perplexing.

41

Thomas 03.15.05 at 4:50 pm

I’m not surprised or disappointed that people engage in arguments. Contrary to what Kieran suggests, I think we should all welcome that.
As for the arguments, one by one:
Utilitarian arguments support torture, and so much the worse for utilitarianism. But have the argument.
On the second point: Kieran’s objection doesn’t seem to be an objection to making claims about the meaning of “torture”, but to people disagreeing with him about the meaning. But why shouldn’t torture mean just what I think it means, or Alan Dershowitz thinks it means, instead of what Kieran thinks it means? It can’t be that Kieran thinks the term doesn’t admit of vagueness.

42

KCinDC 03.15.05 at 5:08 pm

Sure it’s hard to define “torture” exactly, but shoving things under someone’s fingernails is one of the stereotypical examples of torture. Dershowitz might as well ask whether putting someone on a rack is torture.
And since when has permanent physical damage been a requirement for something to be torture? Dershowitz has a right to play Humpty Dumpty, but he shouldn’t expect people to refrain from objecting when he does it.

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Andrew McManama-Smith 03.15.05 at 5:31 pm

I don’t buy the slippery slope/infinite payoff argument because the payoff isn’t actaully infinite and the costs are not zero. It’s sort of like “Mircosoft should by my company now because our software has a chance of defeating Windows which is a near infinite payoff if MS can prevent it, and they can buy us for only a few million dollars.” But it isn’t an infinite payoff, and the cost is not zero.
Because the payoff is finite, and there does exist a cost, Microsoft has not purchased my company.
I’m not defending toture, but I don’t think the slope is all that slippery for the ticking bomb crowd.

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Nell Lancaster 03.15.05 at 5:35 pm

Thomas asked: “But why shouldn’t torture mean just what I think it means, or Alan Dershowitz thinks it means, instead of what Kieran thinks it means?”
Because it would then be impossible to hold anyone to account for torture? The fact is that we currently have laws against torture, which define torture. These laws would convict Prof. Dershowitz if he were to carry out his thought experiment.
Speaking of him, Dershowitz was justifying torture, by Israelis if not by U.S. personnel, well before September 11, 2001. Much as right-wing lawyers were ready with the Justice Department/FBI wishlist that became the Patriot Act, Dershowitz’s arguments were written down and convenient for repackaging to suit the new opportunity. He is very much responsible, among others, for the normalization of torture.
The prime culprits are still those at the top who made sure there was so much torture going on that normalization seems almost required…
Sebastian Holsclaw’s criticims of AI and others for blurring torture and abuse and crying wolf is an effort to absolve himself or others on the right for their reflexive denials of U.S. responsibility for torture in the past, by deflecting blame onto the messengers. It also establishes proper conservative credentials.
I hope many more on the right join Sebastian in an effort to mobilize colleagues against torture. If and when that happens, though, those who have worked for years on the issue may not want to listen in too closely, or if they do will have to grit their teeth and try to maintaine a pleasant expression. This ‘AI cried wolf’ gambit is just one of a collection. Another favorite, ‘Clinton started it’, has the virtue at least of being true.

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floopmeister 03.15.05 at 5:36 pm

There is less to like about the US with every passing day.
Moral authority, dripping away through a leaking tap…
Drip…
Drip…

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Thomas 03.15.05 at 6:01 pm

Nell, yes, we do have laws against torture. And they define it with similarly vague language:
As used in this chapter—
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and …
____________
So, should we have a discussion about what “severe physical or mental pain or suffering” means? These words don’t interpret themselves, do they? My interpretation is that they’d prohibit what Dershowitz proposes, but it’s not my interpretation that’s privileged–it’s Kieran’s.

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Anderson 03.15.05 at 6:09 pm

The Viet Cong will doubtless be sending Dershowitz a letter of thanks for retroactively endorsing their shoving bamboo shoots under POW’s fingernails. “It was always possible that one of those downed pilots might’ve had information that could’ve saved Vietnamese lives,” the letter will doubtless say.

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Bill R 03.15.05 at 6:22 pm

To further understand the erotic nature of torture
just watch any movie directed by Mel Gibson-Bill R

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agm 03.15.05 at 6:37 pm

Did I miss something? I caught that NPR piece before drifting off to sleep, and I got a totally different impression that has been presented here. It sounded like Dershowitz quibbled over the definition of torture but categorically condemned its use, as contrasted to the West Point instructor who kinda-sorta tried to build a defense for torture exactly by using a slippery slope argument: “Act A is torture and is never right. Now consider act Z, which isn’t torture. Then add Y, which isn’t torture, and then X, which isn’t torture, and then… Before you know it you’re doing A, but each additional act was ok, so is A really wrong?”

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George 03.15.05 at 6:49 pm

And incidentally, it seems odd to talk about the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario as an abstract hypothetical when the term was invented (I think) by the Israelis to describe actual cases that occurred not infrequently: intel would be received that a person had been dispatched with a bomb belt, and the race was on to figure out who-what-when-where before it detonated. Any given case may or may not involve direct interrogation, but in cases that do, the time pressures are very real.

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Nell Lancaster 03.15.05 at 6:55 pm

“These words don’t interpret themselves, do they?”
In the Dershowitz example, they functionally do, yes. Everyone seems to agree except Dershowitz.
I have no idea what your point is about your interpretation vs. Kieran’s “privileged” one — you both think needles under fingernails are torture.
IANAL. But with any luck some are reading along. Do you understand the question Thomas is asking? How is any law interpreted? Or is there no case law in this situation; i.e., the U.S. law implementing the convention against torture (ten or fifteen years old now) has never yet been used?

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Thomas 03.15.05 at 7:42 pm

Nell, I think we can agree on certain core uses of the word “torture” (and as defined in the US Code). But that we agree on particular cases isn’t what Kieran’s after. He’s focused on the disagreements.
I don’t think that threatening people with all sorts of awful things is torture (if the awful things aren’t done), and I don’t think killing people with a bullet to the head is torture (at least in most cases, and which isn’t to say it isn’t typically illegal). Others disagree–including, I’m guessing, Kieran. Which I’m sure he’d object to. Because once I disagree, I’m rationalizing torture. And who would want to argue with someone who’s rationalizing torture? No need to even have the argument, is there?

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KCinDC 03.15.05 at 7:59 pm

Nell, thanks for correcting my implication that Dershowitz had had a post-9/11 conversion to torturism. I foolishly assumed that because he was a civil libertarian and a defense attorney he had cared about things like, you know, civil liberties and the treatment of possibly innocent prisoners.

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jet 03.15.05 at 8:02 pm

Pretty much off topic, but reading this thread might lead one to think that those on the right find torture abhorrent yet sometimes necessary while those on the left find torture sexually alluring yet never necessary. Perhaps we can see this debate in a different light. Those on the right trust themselves not to abuse something they despise. While those on the left don’t trust themselves not to abuse something they find so alluring.
Just my observations from the sickos who seem to dig torture in an abstract sort of way.

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George 03.15.05 at 8:13 pm

Yeah, Dershowitz is a strange duck. He’s one of those guys who is assumed to be on one side or the other because of his vitriol against the opposite, when on closer examination he turns out to be as much controversialist as anything else. (See also C. Hitchens.)
And now for a bit of petulant pique:
Do you CTers ever deign to answer questions? You will pounce on a silly or poorly-reasoned comment (of which I’ve produced a few), but I’ve seldom seen a response to a reasonable question asked in good faith, even one directed to your ostensible expertise. It’s your blog, of course, but I thought that was part of the point of a blog.

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KCinDC 03.15.05 at 8:18 pm

Jet, I probably shouldn’t feed your trolling, but exactly one person, HP, said anything about finding torture “sexually alluring”. How can that possibly justify your ridiculous claim?
And those on the right who find torture so abhorrent seem to be extremely flexible about when it’s necessary, if their support of Bush administration is anything to go by. If you’re looking for torture-loving sickos, look to your own side.

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Ben Alpers 03.15.05 at 9:03 pm

“The Viet Cong will doubtless be sending Dershowitz a letter of thanks for retroactively endorsing their shoving bamboo shoots under POW’s fingernails. ‘It was always possible that one of those downed pilots might’ve had information that could’ve saved Vietnamese lives,’ the letter will doubtless say.”
To be fair to Dersh, he did say “_sterilized_ needles.” My understanding is those bamboo shoots weren’t sterilized at all. It’s that kind of wanton lack of concern for the well-being of the folks one is torturing that separates barbarian Commies like the VC from civilized folk like us!

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Joshua W. Burton 03.15.05 at 10:13 pm

For what it’s worth, an Israeli intelligence officer once pointed out to me the following utterly definitive argument against the need to legitimize “ticking bomb” torture.
Assume for the sake of argument that you are the man with the needle, and that in your judgment the outcome of an unlawful interrogation is worth (because it saves innocent lives, etc.) committing torture for. Kal v’chomer (perforce, or literally “lenient and stringent” or “easy and hard” — a trope of Talmudic argumentation), the outcome of the interrogation must be worth your lengthy future incarceration, because convicting and locking up an innocent person like you is obviously less morally corrosive to society than torturing a guilty one like him. (After all, we lock up lots of innocent people who haven’t even broken laws, in the normal sloppy course of criminal justice, and that doesn’t keep moral philosophers up blogging into the night.)
So the law need make no accommodation for torture, unless it is our intent to coddle moral weaklings. The only interesting question of conscience here is a purely personal one, beyond the reach of jurisprudence.

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snuh 03.15.05 at 10:24 pm

go easy on dershowitz. he’s just positioning himself top-of-mind for when the inevitable happens, viz some hot shot intelligence officer in iraq goes too far and faces criminal charges.

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Jack Lake 03.15.05 at 11:21 pm

Torture in amongst us all the time. The police get close to torture and crosses frequently. The government throws everything at some people and ends up convicting the innocent. The “nail” case is just the current focal point.
It is easy, and seems laudable, to forbid all torture. Can we torture Osama on 9/10? Could we have tortured Hitler in 1941?

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gordon 03.16.05 at 12:31 am

Torture is about finding out secrets, and seems linked to the very prevalent feeling (I won’t call it a belief, because that implies thought) that secrets are somehow more valuable than what is publicly known. Most thinking people know that what is important about the world is publicly available somewhere – though sometimes you have to dig for it. But many people remain obsessed by secrets as though somehow the meaning of life is just one more “sterilized needle” away, and if we only torture just one more “suspect” we will know all and can reach some kind of knowledge Nirvana. It isn’t so, of course, but I suspect that until we can release ourselves from the obsession with secrets we will never release ourselves from the threat of torture.

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Phillip J. Birmingham 03.16.05 at 1:18 am

Joel Turnipseed
a long squat in an ice-water filled 55-gallon drum
I welcome anybody who doesn’t think that’s torture to make up a bowl of ice water and see how long they can hold their hand in it.

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MFB 03.16.05 at 2:27 am

I feel that this person “jet” who denies that there is a sexual element to torture, might with advantage have a look at photographs taken in a place called “Abu Ghraib”, a prison in occupied Mesopotamia.
In South Africa we had a prominent torturer called “Spyker” Van Wyk (caricatured by Christopher Hope as Nails Van Byleveld) whose party piece was driving a nail through his captives’ penises. I defy anyone not to read sexual significance into that.
Although I’m sure that Van Wyk, were he alive today, would strongly oppose gay marriages . . .

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luci phyrr 03.16.05 at 4:05 am

“the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario [...] was invented (I think) by the Israelis to describe actual cases: [...] intel would be received that”…
An aside: do people besides Condoleeza Rice still use phrases like “we have good intel that” and expect anybody believes them? I kinda wish those with power would just do as they’re gonna – crush the skulls in, rape the wives, douse the children with gasoline, whatever. Just quit blabbering about it.

Americans, trying to decrease the odds of “death by terrorist” from 1/1,000,000 to 1/100,000,000 will kill thousands upon thousands of Muslims. Because they can. Someday, they won’t be able to anymore.

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bad Jim 03.16.05 at 4:06 am

Is there anything that doesn’t give somebody a sexual response? Plush toys, electric trains, real estate? Domination is a venerable feature of traditional sexual roles and inherent in the parent/child relationship. Moreover, erogenous zones are dense with nerve endings, presenting a rich target for sensory manipulation, and of key significance to one’s sense of self.
So, yeah, torture is going to be titillating to many practitioners and spectators, and sexually degrading to a great many of its objects. No way around it. But, like rape, it may be considered more a crime of violence than of sex.
It would be refreshing if, for once, the apologists for torture were to address its application to people arrested more or less at random, which as far as anyone can tell is what is actually happening in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Toby 03.16.05 at 4:55 am

“Now, it has to be true that the more suspected terrorists we pick up, the greater the certainty we have that at least one of them has the relevant vital information. “
While agreeing with previous commenters that torture should be opposed regardless of its effectiveness, I also think there’s a functional problem with this slippery slope argument.
The proportion of people with good information to bad will remain constant as you pick up more people. And as you pick up more people, the problem becomes not one of getting good information when you have none, but sorting the good information from a pile of bad information. Under these circumstances, normal interrogation techniques will get less good info, but a LOT less bad info, and thus be more effective even if you assume that torture is effective. Which I don’t.

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derrida derider 03.16.05 at 7:25 am

“Nevertheless, as we saw the other day, the ticking-bomb still exerts a considerable hold over people’s minds. Why?”
Because there are a lot cruel shits in the world who secretly like to imagine themslelves as the ‘heroic’ torturer (such shits typically take the form of sexually frustrated young adult males living at home and blogging late into the night as a substitute for actually living. Why don’t you head downtown and try and get laid instead, fellas?).
And there are also plenty of others (typically late-middle-aged bourgeois who are “tired of living but scared of dying”) that are easily scared into cruelty through fear.

68

KCinDC 03.16.05 at 8:13 am

MFB, don’t worry, I’m sure Jet would tell you that Van Wyk, being a damn furriner, was clearly a member of the left.
Toby says “The proportion of people with good information to bad will remain constant as you pick up more people.” That’s true only if you’re picking up people at random, or at least not starting off with the people you think have the best information (who presumably are more likely to actually have better information, unless your intelligence is completely useless).

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jet 03.16.05 at 8:35 am

People who find sexual pleasure in torture have a disease and need treatment before they act on that impulse. To claim it is normal is ludicrous. Only a damaged mind finds joy in someone else’s pain. So all of you claiming it is normal are fucking sick, go tell your shrink you need help in a bad way.
I do find it interesting though that people here have found an
explanation
for torturers. They can’t do it because they think it is necessary, they do it because it is sexually gratifying, right? So you don’t see a difference between Nails Van Byleveld and a US soldier firing a pistol near the ear of a captured roadside bomber? No wonder the left and right are so divided, each sides ethics couldn’t be more different.

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Ginger Yellow 03.16.05 at 8:54 am

Jet, you really don’t get it, do you? We’re the one’s saying torture is utterly inhumane. You’re the one trying to normalise it. The whole point is that torturers lose track of what’s “sick” and what’s not.
An extraordinarily high proportion of the incidents of torture recently uncovered have a strong sexual element, be it the naked stacking, sodomising with lightsticks, forced masturbation, the smearing of fake menstrual blood and just plain rape. The people engaging in these acts have in many instances been photographed quite obviously enjoying it. Now you can pretend that every single person involved in the sexual torture in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram was mentally ill if you want, but you’d be an idiot.

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jet 03.16.05 at 9:59 am

Ginger Yellow,
I’ve previously stated that I’m against torture because it is impractical to have the kind of oversight required to make sure every case is absolutely necessary. But the kind of sick glee captured on film of US soldiers enjoying their work is probably a mixture or some soldiers not wanting the tortured to know they are not unwilling, and then partly the same problem the Germans faced in WWII. When removal of German undesirables first started, it wasn’t just the SS units used to round up Jews and Gypsies, but regular units were used also. The Germans found that the regular units did not have the right kind of indoctrinization for the inhuman work required of them and suffered an abnormally high level of physiological trauma leaving them unfit for duty. I’m sure quite a bit of the horrors we saw perpetrated by US forces are the result of soldiers asked to do things they aren’t morally capable of dealing with. So yes, those pictures of gleeful US soldiers torturing Iraqis are probably pictures of damaged minds.

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Matt McGrattan 03.16.05 at 10:29 am

“. So yes, those pictures of gleeful US soldiers torturing Iraqis are probably pictures of damaged minds.”
There’s some incredibly convoluted logic there — how deep in denial do you have to be?

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Nell Lancaster 03.16.05 at 11:19 am

In a comment above about conservative/Republican approaches to discussing torture issues I said:
“Another favorite, ‘Clinton started it’, has the virtue at least of being true.”
To clarify, by ‘it’, I (and Republicans using the gambit) refer to rendition to torture states, not to U.S. involvement in torture. That began long ago, at least as far back as 1945, and has continued through every administration since.
For more on that history see an article in the current issue of the New England Journal of Public Policy linked by Alan Bostick, an Australian blogger, 74

Nell Lancaster 03.16.05 at 11:25 am

Sheesh, I give up. The blog with the link to the CIA torture history is at this URL:
As I Please

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Doctor Slack 03.16.05 at 11:46 am

To jet: Once we get past all the silly garbage about “the left,” I actually think your point about “damaged minds” is an important part of the picture. It’s hard not to believe that there’s a large amount of trauma-induced psychosis going on in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that this is feeding the general culture of torture.
I think what some others are saying — and what the point of the little digression about the “erotics” of torture was — is that there are plenty of people who openly get off on death and torture who do NOT have such an excuse, hinting that sadism manifests itself a lot more commonly in society than we’re sometimes comfortable admitting. IOW, it’s easy to understand as a certain level of psychosis the fucked-up sense of reality that prompts soldiers to make videos of mutilated Iraqi corpses as keepsakes — but there’s something different going on in the audience of home town boys who whoop, holler and cheer at such videos.
Not pleasant stuff to contemplate, to be sure. And to be honest, my reaction to thinking about it is much the same as yours. But it can be a “good” thing, if these kinds of sadism and viciousness are in fact manifestations of common urges, to recognize and deal with them as such instead of just reassuring ourselves with the notion that there must always be some kind of extraordinary madness at work. Maybe some kinds of pathology are very ordinary; maybe, sometimes, they’re ordinary enough to seem socially acceptable. It certainly seems that torture is heading for that kind of tipping point in the States.

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Matt McGrattan 03.16.05 at 12:06 pm

Joshua Burton wrote:
“So the law need make no accommodation for torture, unless it is our intent to coddle moral weaklings. The only interesting question of conscience here is a purely personal one, beyond the reach of jurisprudence.”
I think gets fairly close to the truth of the matter. Individuals may, in good conscience, be driven to commit an act of torture but this is an issue of personal conscience and they *ought* to expect to be tried and convicted for doing so.
[Donald Johnson? made a similar point on another thread...]
There is *never* a place for the legal sanction of torture or for its use as an information gathering tool by the state.
Ticking bomb cases, at best, speak to the possibility that an individual may be driven to commit an act of torture by circumstances. They don’t provide *any* justification for state sanctioning of torture or the provision of legislation which allows for it.

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jet 03.16.05 at 1:26 pm

Doctor Slack,
Thanks for that reply. I live but to learn and that comment certainly poses some astute observations.
Matt McGrattan,
I don’t understand how you can find it acceptable that a person may driven to an act of torture by circumstance yet should still face criminal charges. It is either okay, or not okay. People often find themselves driven to kill another person and do not face criminal charges. So you can shoot a gunman getting ready to shoot up a bus full of pregnant nuns, but you can’t torture his known accomplice to find out where that gunman will strike? So I guess the answer can be found by looking at how the law came to the conclusion that you can not kill someone because they are highly likely to kill again, ie you can’t shoot someone unarmed who’s escaping simply because they have been known to kill in the past. The torture arguement certainly follows the punishment for something that hasn’t happened yet scenario.

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Doug K 03.16.05 at 1:50 pm

George asked: “Can the past complicity of the subject (in terrorism, in mass murder) be taken into account in assessing the moral tradeoffs of torture?”
Giblets has the answer:
http://fafblog.blogspot.com/2005_03_13_fafblog_archive.html#111094555374011257
right down the slippery slope into torturing himself. A pretty little counterexample.
The answer to your question is no. Simple. Torture is an objective evil. Your question seems to me only a rephrase of the ‘ticking bomb’ – the question of how you know the victim has previously ‘been implicated in terrorism’, is the same question as how you know the victim has knowledge of the bomb: and subject to the same problems of perfect knowledge.
KC in DC observed: “I’m sure Jet would tell you that Van Wyk, being a damn furriner, was clearly a member of the left.”
Irrelevant anecdote: I remember chatting to an old man in the backwoods of N Carolina who told me, “I can tell by your accent you’re one o them furriners from up North”. He was surprised to hear how far South I’d really come from (a compatriot of Spyker’s).

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jet 03.16.05 at 2:12 pm

doug k
“Torture is an objective evil.” So is taking another human life. Yet the state allows state agents and citizens to take humans lives all the time without punishment.
Giblets quote “…we can’t take any chances with jabillions of lives in the balance!” Reminds of me of cuddly Uncle Joe Stalin’s mockery of millions of deaths as just a statistic.

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bi 03.16.05 at 2:22 pm

jet: Your rantings on what “the state” currently does are irrelevant. The fact that something is presently allowed doesn’t mean that it _should_ be allowed.
Is there _any_ evidence at all that jabillions of lives can be saved if we just torture a little harder? As gordon said, it’s the “knowledge Nirvana” fallacy. For all we know, the person being tortured may purposely give false information to buy time, and people are made to follow false leads which can be avoided if they just used normal investigative methods.
Again, the right question is this: “how often has torture been shown to produce useful, reliable results?” Answer this question. It’s not difficult.
(By the way, when’s the “oh I’m sick and tired of this debate” line coming up? Please Help Spread The Meme!)

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jet 03.16.05 at 2:30 pm

Okay, I’m completely convinced now. Laws are made to protect the innocent, not the guilty. And if a few guilty are protected, that is the price we pay for not torturing innocents. I had my paradigm all wrong. We have to put protecting innocents ahead of getting bad guys, as much as we like to see bad guys get their deserts.

Oh, bi, there are probably no truly empirical study on lives saved from torture, but there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that torture saves lives.

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Ginger Yellow 03.16.05 at 3:04 pm

I’m glad to hear that Jet. I’d also like to point out, in support of Matt McGrattan’s point, that law does not equal morality, nor should it. To take a facetious example, if you were to travel back in time, you’d be morally justified in shooting Hitler pre-putsch. But the German state would be equally justified in locking you up. If you’re so certain of your ticking time bomb scenario that you’re willing to torture someone, then you should have faith in a jury reaching the same conclusion. Hell, even if you are guaranteed to be convicted, you should be willing to submit to the law – after all, if saving lives is worth inflicting excruciating pain on someone else, it’s surely worth a little jail time for yourself.

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George 03.16.05 at 3:41 pm

Doug K, thanks for responding. That’s a legitimate position to hold: we must never torture, no matter the expected consequences. It may be that the negative ramifications of an act of torture will ultimately outweigh the positive effects, even in those extreme cases where they can be quantified with confidence — which, as we all agree, is rare. But I find phrases like “The answer to your question is no. Simple” to be red flags. It is not simple, and if you think it is, you are not thinking hard enough. Likewise, bi’s statement “the right question is this: ‘how often has torture been shown to produce useful, reliable results?’ Answer this question. It’s not difficult.” By “it’s not difficult,” I’m guessing she means the answer is ‘never’ and the case is closed. Not true. As mentioned, the Israelis frequently must use aggressive interrogation on a time-sensitive basis to stop in-progress acts of terrorism, and they are often successful in doing so.
That said, ginger yellow is precisely right when he (she?) says the following:
“If you’re so certain of your ticking time bomb scenario that you’re willing to torture someone, then you should have faith in a jury reaching the same conclusion. Hell, even if you are guaranteed to be convicted, you should be willing to submit to the law – after all, if saving lives is worth inflicting excruciating pain on someone else, it’s surely worth a little jail time for yourself.”
Torture is and must remain forbidden, outside the bounds of law or social norms — as I had hoped I had expressed in my first post above. But these moral choices are very real. Though thankfully none of us is likely to ever have to make them, to simply absolve yourself of the duty to think throught the potential consequences of your actions is akin to religious fundamentalism.

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Rob 03.16.05 at 3:48 pm

Jet,
I think your case is a little misleading. I agree that the law ought to respond similarly to relevantly similar cases, but I don’t think the cases are relevantly similar, even if we allow that homicide is permissible to save lives in the normal course of events (that’s just a caveat to say, I’m not taking up a position on whether it is or not, because I think it’s probably beside the point whether it is or not). The relevantly similar case would surely be where you inflicted gratiutious pain on someone in order to prevent them taking lives, because homicide and torture are not the same moral wrong. For example, say in the act of restraining someone from killing someone else, I gratiutiously gouged one of their eyes out: I could have pinned their arm behind their back, or something else, but instead I gouged their eye out. I think we would correctly want to prosecute someone for that (at least in an ideal world, where we could easily distinguish between cases where it was gratiutious and where it wasn’t). Yet that seems to be the case closer to torture, because in both the intention is to inflict pain in order to achieve an end, where the pain is not incidental to the pain but intrinsic to it, whereas in the case of a justified homicide to prevent further deaths, presumably if the person killing to prevent death could achieve that end by some other means, they would do so: the death is accidental to the purpose at hand.

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Alan Bostick 03.16.05 at 4:39 pm

Joel Turnipseed: Thanks for the valuable references. Richard Slotkin is now on my must-read list. It’s always a relief to discover that someone else has already done the heavy lifting that one has been dreading. I wonder if you could unwrap your reference to “the new Hoberman book on Hollywood’s change of temper from 60s to 80s”. Do you mean The Dream Life by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, or something else? My googling skills don’t seem to be up to the task of tracking anything down from your description.
Nell Lancaster: Thanks for the referral. I am not, however, Australian; I’m as American as Joe McCarthy and the Ku Klux Klan. I live in Oakland, California.
Jet: I think that the sexual element of torture — not just at Abu Ghurayb or Gitmo, but of torture in general — needs to be brought more into the discussion. Statements like “I’d probably be down with the death penalty for anyone who admits to being sexually stimulated by torture” or “People who find sexual pleasure in torture have a disease and need treatment before they act on that impulse” work to discourage discussion. Who wants to come forward and engage in dialogue with someone whose starting point is that you’re a sick bastard who deserves to die?

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jet 03.16.05 at 4:43 pm

Rob,
The pain from torture may be intrinsic to the event, but it is not gratuitous. It would be gratuitous if there was another way to get the information. Killing when you could injure is gratuitous. Gouging when you could restrain is gratuitous. But torturing when you could ask real nicely just doesn’t follow. I still see the taking of another’s life as more immoral than torturing another person. And the only reason that taking of another’s life should be allowed is because the crime you are trying to prevent is so immediate that there is no doubt it would have occured had you not acted. IE, if someone breaks into your house and keeps coming towards you with a knife, he obviously isn’t trying to sell girl scout cookies.

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C.Patel 03.16.05 at 5:26 pm

Ah but what if he absolutely believes you to have knowledge of an impending terrorist attack and only wants to torture the information out of you?

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pedro 03.16.05 at 9:43 pm

Ah, then Jet would find him a most reasonable and sensible fellow, and would patriotically take the ordeal.

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Mitch 03.17.05 at 4:42 am

H.R. 952, Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act:
Torture is undeniably WRONG and anyone committing it should be punished regardless of the circumstances, that said I must admit that if the only way I could save the lives of those dear to me was to torture the someone I believe I would do so, but I would be willing and expect to face the consequences of my actions whether it be imprisonment or even my own death.

This should not be construed as being the same as killing an enemy in an act of war, for torturing a captive for any reason should be considered as no different from murdering a person while they are bound and gaged, ITS WRONG AND ITS A CRIMINAL ACT.

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Mitch 03.17.05 at 4:44 am

H.R. 952, Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act:
Torture is undeniably WRONG and anyone committing it should be punished regardless of the circumstances, that said I must admit that if the only way I could save the lives of those dear to me was to torture the someone I believe I would do so, but I would be willing and expect to face the consequences of my actions whether it be imprisonment or even my own death.

This should not be construed as being the same as killing an enemy in an act of war, for torturing a captive for any reason should be considered as no different from murdering a person while they are bound and gaged, ITS WRONG AND ITS A CRIMINAL ACT.

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Rob 03.17.05 at 6:58 am

Jet,
describing torture as gratuitious is, I admit, somewhat question-begging. But if you take seriously, as the US constitution does, the right not to incriminate yourself, which follows from a presumption of innocence (the thought being, in both, that the burden of proof rests with the accuser, rather than with the accused) and the right not to be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment, then torture is necessarily gratuitious, because it aims at violation of the first of these rights by violation of the second. It is like the gouging case, because in both cases, rights are violated: boundaries which ought not to be broken are broken, and broken with the intention of breaking them. Killing someone in genuine self-defence is like, I think, the case where the mountaineer cuts the rope, sending their companion to their death, because otherwise the companion is going to drag them both to their deaths, having fallen or whatever. In neither case is the death intended, whereas in the gouging case and in the torture case, the pain is an intrinsic part of the action.
Notice that I am not saying there are no hypothetical cases where torture might be justified: I’m not taking a position on that. However, it does seem plausible that any hypothetical cases in which torture is justified, should they exist, are so rare and so difficult to assess the existence of, that, whether or not they exist, a total legal ban on torture is justified. This is because, allowing that there are such cases, the plausible cases where torture is justified are so rare and difficult to assess the existence of that it would be extremely dangerous to allow individuals to assess whether or not they existed. Even if we were sure that a particular case of torture was justified, I think we would still be justified in punishing the person concerned because of the disincentive effects it would provide: not punishing them would be condoning torture, which it strikes me would be incredibly dangerous. Anyone who was caught in the genuine moral dilemma that cases of justified torture, should they exist, would provide, would surely appreciate that torture is at best a hideous least worst option, which is almost never justified, and that discouraging it is such a serious moral imperative that their punishment is justified.

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jet 03.17.05 at 12:38 pm

Rob,
You said “However, it does seem plausible that any hypothetical cases in which torture is justified, should they exist, are so rare and so difficult to assess the existence of, that, whether or not they exist, a total legal ban on torture is justified.”
And that was my opinion before I came to the opinion that torture is always wrong because there will always be the chance that an innocent will be tortured, regardless of oversight. Although I think the penalty phase of any trial should take into account if the torturer made a good call on whether to use torture (he got the information to stop the bomb).
Which leaves me where I started. The one case where I felt torture was truly justified had the exact consequences I would now want it to have. The Captain who fired his pistol near the ear of a captured roadside bomber was court marshalled, but given a slap on the wrist since the roadside bomber gave up the location of many bombs after the gunshot.
On a side note, I don’t see how the Constitution fits into the debate about torturing non-US citizens. It is obvious that a US citizen/agent can not torture a US citizen.

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Garry Culhane 03.17.05 at 2:40 pm

There is a story that Ghandi was asked what he would do if he were in a tiny cell with a Cobra poised to strike and a suitable stick within reach. Would he not pick up the stick and defend himself against the snake? Ghandi is supposed to have said he would break the stick.
When I first read that I thought it was a dubious defense of pacificism. Later I realized it showed that Ghandi was one tough son of a bitch who would sternly push aside the kind of sophomoric idiot who would come up with such a question. He was a serious man who had decided that it was time to drive the British Empire out of India, his way.
He was not going to waste time on scholastic debate. One does not want to get in the way of a man like that. His convictions are his means.
But one might want to notice what a serious man sounds like. It makes Dershowitz sound like a nasty little schoolboy doing unpleasant things to flies. The point is, if you are a democratic person by conviction, then those are your means. Worry about the unthinkable when and if. Or maybe you think Ghandi was a softie?

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