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.