Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Too-Easy Answers About Torture

Tim Russert blindsided Hillary Clinton last night, positing “a situation in which we were holding the “number three man in Al Qaeda. We know there's a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation? Don't we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.”

When Sen. Clinton answered that “torture cannot be American policy period” and “in addition to the values that are so important for our country to exhibit is that there is very little evidence that it works,” Russert told her that the scenario was suggested by Bill Clinton last year.

“Well, he's not standing here right now,” she responded to applause.

As other Democrats more or less agreed, a whiff of sanctimony was in the air, as it always is when politicians talk about the subject.

Only a fool (pace Alberto Gonzales) would advocate torture as policy, but as with so many other issues, it’s not always that simple. One of the less obvious sad results of Bush’s black/white, good/evil view of the world is that it has infected those who oppose him.

Before answering Russert’s “scenario,” Hillary Clinton had observed that “these hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it's dangerous to go down this path.”

It certainly is. In an era when presidents talk publicly about their underwear, voters expect definite answers about everything. But important issues don’t lend themselves to sound-bite solutions.

Just as there is the yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater exception to free speech, there may be situations that override the prohibition against torture or, as Joe Biden suggested, offering pardons to terrorists in exchange for information that would prevent devastation.

Years ago, when he had a TV show, William F. Buckley asked a noted attorney who strongly advocated defendants’ rights what he would do to get information from a suspect who knew where a kidnapped child was buried with a limited supply of air.

The lawyer did not hesitate: “Beat it out of him.”

In failing to acknowledge that there are no doctrinaire answers to everything a la George Bush, Democrats who want to replace him are doing themselves, and us, no service. Republicans will be only too happy to characterize them as lily-livered liberals.

1 comment:

: smintheus :: said...

Sorry to say, but you've gone right off the tracks here.

Ticking time bomb scenarios are useless because they're fictional. They're fictional because one does not have certain knowledge that a bomb is about to go off, or that a child is buried, or what have you. They are the stuff of fiction.

They are dragged into debates about torture in order to justify the unjustifiable. Criminal/terrorist suspects are just that. They are innocent until proven guilty. Would be torturers want to efface that fundamental quality of justice. In order to convince others to go along, they posit fictional and all-but-impossible scenarios.

The sloppy back-rationalizations to other torture-approved scenarios begins from there. Sorry, I'm not buying any of it, beginning with the pathetic fictions.

And by the way, there is no shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theater exemption to the right of free speech. That, in its own way, was an equally disingenuous rationale from Justice Holmes to justify the unjustifiable--locking up a man who had the temerity to speak out against WWI.

There was no plausible legal argument for allowing the Wilson government to hound its political opponents like that. So, just as Bush apologists reach for fictional scenarios to justify torture, Holmes invented a fictional scenario and then implied that the defendant was guilty of shouting fire FALSELY in a crowded theater--a situtation that was in no way parallel to what he had been jailed for.

The defendant had expressed opinions, not facts (false or otherwise). The defendant had done it in order to save lives, not destroy them. The defendant had spoken of political issues, which are the most protected of all speech. He had stepped forward out a civic-mindedness, not malice, insanity, or whatever Holmes was insinuating.

In short, Holmes' ruling was tendentious in the extreme. As a legal argument, it is ridiculous in the extreme because it ignores both the law and the facts of the case.

The same is true, in every particular, of the ticking-time bomb arguments for torture.

If you prefer to give presidents the "right" to throw out due process and the presumption of innocence, any time they see fit, then please do as regards yourself. Leave the rest of us out of your Orwellian dystopia, however.