Alan Dershowitz Defends Torture…”in Extraordinary Circumstances”

In a previous post, I linked to a series of articles published by the Washington Monthly, the contributors to which all were firm in their belief that torture is never justified. I mentioned in class the other day that one of the tenets of my teaching philosophy is to create a strict wall of separation between my own political beliefs and the substance and content of my teaching. Torture is the one area where I make an exception as I believe that this is not a partisan issue (a claim that is supported by the partisan views of the contributors to the Washington Monthly special report on torture–Republican, Democrats, and Independents all contributed to the report) and that torture is morally wrong and the United States government should never use it as official public policy.

In order to provide some balance to the debate, however, please find below an interview of Alan Dershowitz, who–by his own admission–supports torture only in “exceptional circumstances”, by veteran British journalist David Frost. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the most erudite of those who support torture. Most of the comments of those who support the use of torture by the US government aren’t nearly as thoughtful as Dershowitz. Here are some examples from Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard:

Andrew Sullivan is yet again calling the president a “war criminal.” This time in response to today’s New York Times article revealing that the Bush administration has subjected terror suspects captured abroad to ‘severe’ and ‘brutal’ interrogations.

Sullivan has a history of trotting out the charge of “war criminal,” sticking the label on George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon counsel Jim Haynes, and Berkeley law prof John Yoo.

And for what? The Times indicts the Bush administration for exposing terrorists captured abroad to “head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.” Boo hoo. And why does the Times consider this such a dangerous policy? The reporters end the story with this quote, from former Navy lawyer John Hutson, which they must believe to be compelling:

“The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?” he asked.

As Jules Crittenden notes in response:

[The] article neglects to mention we are fighting an enemy that considers powerdrills into kneecaps and videotaped beheading of captives business as usual. That in fact, we have yet to face an enemy in the modern era that observes anything approaching the standards we do. Germany, Japan, North Korea, North Vietnam, Iran, Iraq. Disorientation, isolation, beatings, starvation, summary executions, torture … of the bone-breaking, organ-smashing, electrocuting, bloody-drawing variety.

That is, real torture. And it trivializes the seriousness of it to apply the word to “head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.” It also trivializes the seriousness of real war crimes for someone to throw around the charge so promiscuously. A quick search of Sullivan’s blog for “war criminal” turns up 34 hits, all of them referring to members of the Bush administration. No doubt hit number 35 will be Andrew’s attack on the war criminals of the Worldwide Standard.

Here is another example from Goldfarb:

I haven’t really been following this issue, mostly because I’m pretty sure that whatever the government is doing to these terrorists wouldn’t “shock my conscience.” Like my man Scalia says, sometimes you’re going to have to take these terrorists and “smack them in the face.” But, some folks are more easily shocked than I am, and they are in full moral outrage mode this morning with the release of a 2003 memo by John Yoo (now a professor at Berkeley!) approving “harsh interrogation techniques.” Oh, the humanity!

Unfortunately, in a sad twist of fate, Andrew Sullivan has taken the week off, and so there will be no calls for a new Nuremberg trial featuring the prosecution of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and everyone else Andrew doesn’t agree with. But if you need your fix of self-righteous lefty demagoguery, Glenn Greenwald is a pretty good substitute with his post on “John Yoo’s War Crimes.”

2 thoughts on “Alan Dershowitz Defends Torture…”in Extraordinary Circumstances””

  1. Actually, at times Dershowitz was unclear as to whether the “ticking-bomb” scenario has come to fruition. He mentions the case of the German kidnapper and claims that the it was only after the kidnapper had boasted to police that the kid was going to die that the German police “considered torture”. I’m not sure what he means by “consider”. That does not necessitate actually going through with the torture.

    His logic behind the “torture warrant” is his belief that we are torturing anyway, so we may as well create a structure in which there is the highest amount of democratic accountability (more horizontal than vertical) and where those who would choose to torture (the executive branch, specifically) are checked by an potent and aggressive judiciary. This would be similar to the FISA court, which was set up after Richard Nixon’s hate-hate relationship with the rule of law was uncovered.

  2. I would like to learn more about his logic behind the “torture warrant” and the cases in which the “ticking time bomb” scenario actually occurred. It was reassuring to first learn that the “ticking time bomb” scenario does not occur often when I first read “No Torture, No Exceptions”, yet I guess it does occur occasionally according to Dershowitz. I do believe that torture is wrong in countless ways, so what is the reasoning behind his idea of the “torture warrant?” I guess if the detainee is bragging, as Dershowitz said, and it is certain that he has valuable life-saving information then torture is warranted? It is a public official’s duty to make important and crucial decisions. But I have difficulty of allowing this torture in the first place. If hundreds/thousands/millions of lives can be saved because of one person, can this person be tortured until we receive this information? This is an imperfect world and these situations do occur. Yet, aren’t we part of the problem if we aren’t part of the solution? Or however that saying goes. This is definitely a heated, difficult, and sensitive issue yet I am glad that Dershowitz makes the point that we need to talk about it. It is better we publicly discuss then allow things to hide.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: