[lit-ideas] Re: lawyers approve torture

  • From: John McCreery <mccreery@xxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 8 Jun 2004 13:04:46 +0900

On 2004/06/08, at 12:30, JulieReneB@xxxxxxx wrote:

> http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3783869.stm
> Someone please explain to me how this happened without any American 
> citizen
> even knowing about it.  This isn't America anymore.  I don't know what 
> the hell
> it is, but it ain't America.

I don't for a moment approve of the idea that the President or any 
other official should be able to authorize torture at will. A return to 
the Star Chamber and Inquisition is too big a step back for civil 
liberties for me to stomach.

That said, I have some issues with Julie's crie de coeur, "It ain't 

The first is empirical: The trope of using torture to extract 
information from villains, when said information is desperately needed 
to save innocent lives, is far from unusual in American popular 
culture. See, for example, the role played by Denzel Washington in the 
recent film, Man on Fire.

The second, suggested by the first, is a philosophical question: Are we 
ever justified in torturing human beings who do not belong to our 
particular moral community?

If our answer is that, by definition, all human beings belong to our 
moral community, the answer is clearly no. Once we allow, however, any 
division between "us," the members of the moral community whose rules 
we are bound to follow, and "them," the others who are, by definition, 
outside our moral community and may, thus, be regarded by us as 
sub-human, what, if any, limits are imposed upon us?

One might note, for example, that the torture of captives from other 
tribes was the norm for at least some Native American tribes. Members 
of the otherwise rather civilized-seeming League of the Iroquois are a 
famous instance. Captured warriors expected to be tortured to death, 
and stoicism in the face of torture was seen as a manly virtue.

One could argue that US citizens, protected by the Constitution, should 
never be tortured by US authorities, but not see the same protections 
extended to non-citizens.

One could argue, more broadly, that immunity from torture is a right of 
citizens of all states that adhere to International Law. But what of 
citizens of states that do not adhere to international law.

The usual military argument for the Geneva Conventions is prudential. 
We treat the soldiers of enemy states well in the expectation that our 
own soldiers will be treated well if captured.

A similar, if more informal convention, has been said (at least in the 
novels of John Le Carre) to govern the interactions of mutually hostile 
intelligence agencies, the rule being, in effect, "Do not unto ours 
what you don't want done unto yours."

Pursuing this line of thought, one arrives at the question, "How do we 
treat international terrorists who are not uniformed soldiers or 
members of other state-authorized organizations, when, in fact, their 
behavior seems to put them beyond the human pale?"

The tricky bit is, of course, who gets to make the decision that they 
are beyond the human pale. If, as in the case, of Herbert Padilla, the 
administration claims that any individual, citizen or not, can be 
declared beyond the pale by the President, the whole structure of 
legally guaranteed civil liberties totters.

I don't claim to have a resolution to these issues, other than a 
personal bias in favor of treating every human as a human being until 
proved otherwise. But the fact that even I, soft-hearted liberal that I 
am, consider the possibility that some examples of homo sapiens may be, 
in fact, inhuman and thus fall totally beyond the human pale suggests 
that this possibility is very much a part of American, as well as 
other, cultures.

John L. McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
55-13-202 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama, Japan 220-0006

Tel 81-45-314-9324
Email mccreery@xxxxxxx

"Making Symbols is Our Business"

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