May 29, 2009
What If Torture Does Work, Dick?

Nephew Will Doolittle’s column in today’s Glens Falls Post-Star:

The point of social institutions, especially legal institutions, is to impose uniformity and objectivity on social interactions that would otherwise be personal and unpredictable.

When Mario Cuomo was governor of New York, and debating the death penalty, which he opposed, he would propose a scenario where a member of his own family was killed during a robbery, making the criminal eligible for a first-degree murder charge.

Would he want that murderer executed? Would he want to kill him with his own hands?

Yes, Cuomo would say, but, for the good of all, the legal system would not allow him a personal revenge.

Victims are prohibited from punishing their victimizers, except through the offices of the state. That’s how order is maintained.

When I have criticized Bush-era officials for engaging in torture, the most consistent response from readers has been, “What if your child were in danger?”

Let’s say my child were kidnapped and, by some fantastic set of circumstances, one of the kidnappers was sitting in my kitchen and I believed that, by torturing him, I could save my child — would I do it?

I probably would, which is no justification for legalizing torture.

It is our capacity for violence that makes laws forbidding it necessary, unless, of course, you think torture is fine.

If torture is fine, then, as Jesse Ventura asked recently, why didn’t we torture Timothy McVeigh to find out who helped him in the Oklahoma City attack? Why not torture murderers for the names of their accomplices? Why not torture prisoners of war for information about our enemies?

If, as Dick Cheney asserts, the end of squeezing information out of suspected al-Qaida terrorists justified the means of torturing them, then, surely, torture is worth doing in other circumstances where American lives are threatened.

We should have tortured prisoners we captured during the Vietnam War, for example, to find out what they knew about our enemy’s plans.

We should have tortured Squeaky Fromme after she tried to shoot Gerald Ford, to find out if any other members of the Manson family were planning to attack the president (one of them was).

We should torture teens caught plotting Columbine-style attacks to make sure no co-conspirators are left at large.

The question is not whether torture works. Let’s say it does. The question is whether the costs of employing torture outweigh the benefits of any information you glean. I think they do.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at May 29, 2009 07:41 AM
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Excellent use of logic and analogy. Your nephew has clearly a mastered both impeccably. And produced one of the finest, shortest arguments on the subject of torture that I've seen anywhere. And the conclusion begs the inevitable question that should be put to Justice Scalia and to parents all over America: would you support allowing your child to be tortured if they were suspected of being involved in a plot to harm other Americans?

Those who support or condone waterboarding of human beings obviously would have no problem with the technique being applied to their children if such allegations were made against that child by someone in authority. Your nephew has produced the proof.


Posted by: Buck on May 29, 2009 8:42 AM

Lets say it doesn't! The science and experienced interrogators tell us it doesn't. You're educated and informed, I would bet you would love your kid enough to forego the ephemeral pleasure (some people apparently experience) of torture for the infinitely more lasting pleasure of possibly recovering your son alive by using the methods that have been shown to work and that would exclude torture.

I refuse to go along with the Bush, Cheney monster defense that it works and lives were saved, quite the contrary - it doesn't work and infinitely more lives were lost not to mention all the other good reasons you have mentioned not to torture. These other reasons are great in and of themselves but some people just can't get it so I refuse to humor them like the death penalty advocates who suggest that the death penalty is "preventative" in nature or some people are just too dangerous to house in our maximum security prisons.

Other than being wrong, I too, think your nephew is a great writer and makes an eloquent argument coming down on the right side for only one of two very good reasons.

Posted by: knowdoubt on May 29, 2009 2:25 PM

What an insightful comment from Jesse Ventura! I've been selling him short all these years.

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on May 29, 2009 4:09 PM

Well, I've never been a fan of Jesse, but if my comment resembles his well, it's to his credit, I guess, and quite by accident.

Posted by: knowdoubt on May 29, 2009 6:31 PM

knowdoubt I don't think that Will was arguing that torture produces good results. He was making the argument that if it were ever conclusively proven that it did work, that it would be abhorrent to allow its use in this country and allowing its use leads down a road straight to hell.

Posted by: Buck on May 29, 2009 8:44 PM

No, I hope he wasn't, but the monsters are hoping, no trying, to make that argument and if they succeed there probably isn't a jury in the world, make that country, that would convict them. I want to see them held accountable and as long as people can be convinced that that shit works then there will be no accountability and we will continue in the circle. It will never end until it is put to bed completely, finally and once and for all. Hell, his daughter admits that Cheney is scared that's why he is trying to sell the lie that thousands of lives were saved. It is complete, utter bullshit and science and experience does not support it.

Posted by: knowdoubt on May 30, 2009 7:39 AM
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