Torture arguments

This is what our Thursday night English class created together when we discussed two articles on torture. Comments follow.


Torture: physical and/or psychological abuse that causes permanent harm



*Torture is morally wrong


*Gets unreliable information

*We don’t know if we’re torturing someone who has information

*Could be the wrong person, or someone innocent

*Torture causes permanent physical/mental damage

*Prisoner has no choice, no autonomy; is restrained; torturer has all the power

*Torture creates illusion of impunity (sanctioning an illegal act makes the law meaningless)

*Damages the person doing the torturing

*Slippery slope: “When does the torture stop?” Sheriff Dave will torture

*Torture is a shameful act (and not virtuous)

*Torture is lawbreaking and unconstitutional

*Torture dehumanizes the enemy; it’s used in a racist way—“Why not torture white Christians in US, Germany, France, UK, etc.?”

*Torturing countries lose wars

*The Nuremberg defense (“We were just following orders”) is not a legitimate argument in a democracy

*Ticking time bomb situation doesn’t/hasn’t happened

*Torture goes against international law (Hajjar)

*Torture causes humanity to regress, like a return to Medieval period (Hajjar)

*Torture not much different from rape and sexual abuse; they can go hand-in-hand (Hajjar)

*Human rights: there is no right to torture, and a right to not be tortured (Hajjar)

*No such thing as "little torture"; torture makes you no better than enemy (Hajjar)

*With torture, there is no room for mistake (Hajjar)

*Torture makes us closer to totalitarianism (Hajjar)

*Torture destroys our humanity (Hajjar)

*The exception will become the rule (A. Schenck)

*Torture is injustice (punishing the innocent and/or unconvicted) and destroys the notion of justice (A. Schenck)

*Torture destroys an impartial judicial system ("Would you report someone else's crime if you knew they'd be tortured?")

*Torture tears down the entire edifice (or structure) of civil society (A. Schenck)

*People of low morality/people with devious aims will seek power to be torturers (A. Schenck)

*Democratic process's whole purpose is to separate powers so no single person has too much power (to use indiscriminately/lawlessly)

*Giving someone authority to torture gives too much power to one individual (A. Schenck)

*Giving authority to torture to President will eventually bring about a tyrant (A. Schenck)



*They do it, too

*Shows that we “mean business”

*Gets information

*Gets confessions

*Ticking time bomb situation

*Ends justify the means

*Not torturing would be immoral (because it would sacrifice people; ends justify the means)

*Circumstances should dictate use; torture can be limited

*Deters actions

*Torture acts as threat and intimidates bad people

*Torturing countries win against terrorists, insurgencies

*Torture is in the past; “Let’s move on; it was right after 9/11.”

*Torturers were just following orders

*Scientists/psychologists can perform the torture according to what works and limit use/harm

*Save the children

*Torture is going on anyway, in American prisons, etc.

*"We're going to do it anyway," so regulate it (Derschowitz)

*Torture victims get legal immunity (Derschowitz)

*Constitution does not outlaw torture (Derschowitz)


We started out talking about torture justifications. Immediately I had to try to separate the supposed purposes for torture and the actual act of what torture is. I used the example that the murderer in Silence of the Lambs was committing torture; it didn't matter if there was a justification. We brainstormed pro and con arguments, listing them on the board (listed above).


Then we looked at how Hajjar and Derschowitz made their arguments. Then I read from the US Constitution how treaties are "the supreme law of the land" and then read the UN Convention Against Torture, which describes torture as "torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted." I asked, "So it's illegal, right?" No dissenters. We talked a bit about how high the "severe pain" standard would be -- what would constitute torture. "Waterboarding -- that's severe suffering with permanent damage, right?" One student said, "Uh, maybe. We don't know."


Then I asked students to think about how, "If you support torture, would you be willing to do the torturing?" Students had a lot of trouble answering this question up front. One student focused on "limited" and "scientific" use of torture done by others. "Should we set up a Department of Torture at the University of Minnesota?" I said. "No," he said. This student downgraded the definition of torture. "What would be torture without humiliation?" I asked but didn't get a straight response. "Who's going to study torture so we can use it effectively -- professors of torture?" He said, "No, that'd be sadistic."


I asked another student, "Would you torture?" "I think that given a threat to my family, I would do anything I needed to," he said. He took the question really seriously, I could see. He made pains to point out that torture is bad policy, because it would be used against the innocent, much like capital punishment has killed innocent people.


The next student was well-versed with the pro and con arguments and said he was on the pro side. "As a country, we've become soft." "How?" I said. He said, "If someone burglarizes my house and I beat him up, I get charged with a crime." "So, we should have vigilantism, and disregard the judicial system for justice?" "Yes," he said. I gave an example: "So, if someone purposefully hits me in my car, I should just attack them back?" He responded, "Yes, if that person did it purposefully." I said, "Well, what if you make a driving mistake and someone wants to punish you immediately with violence? They thought you were attacking your family (in the car), so they attack your family right back?" Somewhat cornered in the debate, he had a wry smile and said, "Yes. That's would be that person's fault for being in that situation."


The next student had no balloon-fish antics. "I was in the Vietnam War, in Cambodia, and I saw the whole thing -- war, torture, genocide." Everyone was attentive. "There's only suffering that comes from that. I wouldn't torture." I said, "The Khmer Rouge -- wasn't it their idea that if we torture just one more person, if we kill just another person, we can have a better, happier society?" He said, "Yeah, it just goes downhill."


The next student said, "I'm against torture. I don't know how I'd react in the situation, though." I said, "Well, there's no halfway. Torture is either acceptable or not." The student still hedged. I said, "Well that's (X number) in the pro-torture column and (X number) against." The student said, "No, I don't want to be on the pro-torture side." A previous student said, "I'm not pro-torture either."


This prompted a discussion about what people would actually do -- in their daily lives -- in a violent situation. One student said, "Someone drove into me on purpose when I was on the road on my bike (bicycle)." I said, "Did you react violently against the person?" He said, "No." Other students described situations where they had been wronged by strangers. "Why didn't you react with violence?" I said. "I couldn't do much; I thought I'd leave it up to the police," one said. In talking about these issues, it seemed that people did not once use vigilantism or go outside the law. "Why did you not go outside the law but say you support torture, which is outside the law?" We talked a bit about authority and what rights people are willing to give up.


We finished talking about torture with me saying, "I'm against torture" and setting forth the arguments listed above under "A. Schenck." I got accused of being a Democrat, and I suggested I could just as easily be a libertarian. "What's that?" someone said. "Well, libertarians believe in personal freedom and limited government -- that we should not give the government too much power. Allowing torture gives away way too much power." That was about the end of it. We had taken much more time than we had planned on and did not talk much about the writing assignment -- or writing at all. We talked about introductions briefly, and that was that.


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