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.)