Torture has been around, of course, as long as humans have had the capacity to abuse each other.  It was done for public entertainment by the ancients — the Roman games to the death in the Coliseum echoed by our more violent professional sports.

Christians and others during the darker ages felt compelled to justify torture in the name of G-d which they did as a conversion tactic or punishment for ‘heresies’ from the true faith — their version of it, that is.  The Catholics burned Protestants at the stake and Calvin was implicated in the burning of at least one young Catholic priest. Thousands of (mainly elderly women) were burned in Europe as witches beginning roughly in the 17th century and extending into New England.  ‘Water boarding’ was a part of the witch trial game.  If an alleged witch survived the ducking stool, she was manifestly a witch to be finished off by fire.  It she drowned — tough luck — got it wrong on that one.

Jumping to the modern era, the Axis powers during WW2 tortured with gay abandon.  The Nazis particularly seem to have gotten their jollies out of torture and mass murder.  We always have our psychopaths among us waiting to be unleashed.  Your boss or spouse may be one.

With the horrors of WW2’s brutalities before our eyes, the civilized nations took legal action to ban forever the possibility of mass murder and torture.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 specified a long list of protections — some of which could be suspended in the face of emergencies (“Loose lips sink ships” was a well remembered slogan from WW2.).  However, two human rights were designated “nonderogable” meaning no exceptions for any reason.  They were slavery and torture.

I first encountered the modern defense of torture when an argument (now widely used) was put forward by a colleague with whom I had taught at CCNY where I did the philosophy of law courses during the uproar year in 1968-69.  Michael Levin, a philosophy department member, did a short piece arguing that torture would be justified to uncover the location of a nuclear weapon set to explode in a city:

Frankly, I did not like Mike personally.  He struck me as a hostile person and when I had a choice of CUNY departments into which to settle, I avoided CCNY and went to Brooklyn College despite the much longer subway trip to and from.  However, I later defended Mike’s tenure when it was being threatened along with that of Leonard Jeffries — both on charges of alleged racist statements that they had made.  I had been a member of an ACLU advisory committee and worked through Norman Siegel, speaking to the various CCNY committee members investigating Jeffries and Levin and the CCNY president finally called me to assure me that Mike’s tenure was secure.  I gather that he said the experience made a civil libertarian of him.

However, let us be entirely clear that Levin’s argument does two despicable things:

1) It defends one of humanity’s more egregious practices — cruelty sanctioned by political authority.  This practice in turn, when justified as Mike did it,

2) opens the door wide to extensive human rights violations.  Philosophers know this as the thin edge of the wedge situation.  Allow one instance of a travesty and the doors may slide further open to permit widespread abuses.

It should be no surprise that our gulag abuses of Muslims in such places as Brooklyn just after 9/11 would proliferate to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, overseas renderings, and now to senseless killings of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq by such as the Blackwater hoods.

Torture is a violation of the American Constitution.  I regret that we shall have yet another Attorney General who seems oblivious to this reality.

Shame, America!  This is what we fought against in WW2 — and promised the world never again!!!!!

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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