60 Minutes Report on Torture in Guantanamo Bay

Via the CBS news program 60 Minutes, we learn about a German resident of Turkish origin who was tortured by his captors in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.  From the description:

An innocent man held as a terror detainee for years tells Scott Pelley, in his first U.S. television interview, how Americans tortured him in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo Bay.

You can find the video report here.

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.”

No Torture. No Exceptions.


The above sketch by Thomas V. Curtis, a former Reserve M.P. sergeant, is of an Afghan detainee, Dilawar, who was taken into U.S. custody on December 5, 2002, and died five days later. Dilawar was deprived of sleep and chained to the ceiling of his cell—techniques that the Bush administration has refused
to outlaw for use by the CIA. Further, his legs were, according to a coroner, “pulpified” by repeated blows. Later evidence showed that Dilawar had no connection to the rocket attack for which he’d been apprehended.

One of the most important tenets of my teaching philosophy is to make the classroom a safe forum for diverse and competing points of view. In order to facilitate this, I believe that it is necessary, as much as is humanly possible, to refrain from promoting my own views and importing my personal biases into what I teach. I will temporarily put that tenet aside in order to address the topic of torture.

The United States government tortures. That’s a difficult sentence for me to write. The human rights organization for which I worked in Croatia during the 1990s–the Croatian Helsinki Committee–was at the forefront of the effort in that country to stop human rights abuses, such as torture, that the Tudjman-led regime was committing during those years. I would often find myself in debate with individuals–soldiers, police officers, government officials, religious leaders, and average citizens–about the human rights abuses the government was committing. My argument was basically, “we (in Croatia) are being hypocritical if, on the one hand, we claim that we are superior–in some civilizational sense (this is argument that was made, though I don’t adhere to it)–to the Serbs because we are more “Western” and more democratic, yet we allow our government (with our support) to commit absolutely horrific human rights abuses. We should try to mimic the behavior, then, of Western democracies such as Canada and the United States rather than the abhorrent policies of the Milosevic regime.”

My interlocutors would usually reply, “but, Canada’s, and America’s government would be doing the same thing if 1/3 of their territory was under foreign occupation.” I replied that they would not. I have to apologize to every single one of those people, because they were right and I was wrong. And it didn’t even take foreign occupation for the US government to begin to undermine the fundamental tenets upon which democracy and the respect for human dignity are based. My attitude towards torture is nicely captured by the title of a recent series on torture put out by the magazine Washington Monthly–“No Torture. No Exceptions.”

We’ll take a look at the debate on torture near the end of the semester (in intro to IR) and we’ll see that the strongest moral claim for torture comes from a consequentialist (or utilitarian) perspective; this is why the “ticking bomb scenario” is customarily trotted out to refute deontological arguments. I will argue (and I encourage you to try to prove me wrong) that there are consequentialist reasons for not torturing. I encourage you to read the essays in “No Torture. No Exceptions.” (In fact, if you’re in intro to IR, you’ll have to.)

The Fall and Rise of Torture Across Time and Space

Here’s the abstract from an interesting article* on the history of the use of torture by Christopher Einol. I think we’ll read this near the end of the semester. (The subject of the illustration is water-boarding (about which the current US Attorney General does not know whether it is torture or not) during the Spanish Inquisition.)

water_torture.jpgTorture was formally abolished by European governments in the 19th century, and the actual practice of torture decreased as well during that period. In the 20th century, however, torture became much more common. None of the theories that explain the reduction of torture in the 19th century can explain its resurgence in the 20th. This article argues that the use of torture follows the same patterns in contemporary times as it has in earlier historical periods. Torture is most commonly used against people who are not full members of a society, such as slaves, foreigners, prisoners of war, and members of racial, ethnic, and religious outsider groups. Torture is used less often against citizens, and is only used in cases of extremely serious crimes, such as treason. Two general 20th-century historical trends have caused torture to become more common. First, an increase in the number and severity of wars has caused an increase of torture against enemy guerrillas and partisans, prisoners of war, and conquered civilian populations. Second, changes in the nature of sovereignty have caused an expansion in the definition of acts constituting treason.

* CHRISTOPHER J. EINOLF, “The Fall and Rise of Torture: A Comparative
and Historical Analysis”, Sociological Theory 25:2 June 2007. You should have access to the article if you are on campus.