Concerning torture, ticking bombs, and “lawfare”

Torture is never restricted to “worthwhile” targets.

When some of the denizens of Wingnuttia, including all of this year’s Presidential candidates including John Mccain, start splitting hairs about torture and talking about “ticking bomb” scenarios, I quickly lose my temper and start speculating about how they would look after having all their fingernails pulled out. That allows them to get all smug and superior and resonable and ask why it is that I’m trying to shut down reasoned debate.*

Here’s why. Torture is never restricted to “worthwhile” targets. It gets applied to random victims turned in for bounty money. And once someone has been tortured, the impulse to keep torturing until he confesses (thus retrospectively justifying what has already been done) is overwhelming. Note that this victim in this case was held for four years after his innocence had been established, and released only because Angela Merkel asked for his release.

Note further that if he were to sue, the Bush Administration would undoubtedly invoke the “state secrets” doctrine, arguing that whatever had been done to him was classified information and therefore couldn’t be brought out in court. And that in other cases the Bush Administration has argued that once someone has been tortured he can’t be allowed to see a lawyer because he might give the lawyer information about the specific torture techniques being used that would be of value to the enemy. (That implies that, once someone has been tortured, he can never be released, because he is in possession of classified information.)

And just remember the next time you hear some wingnut talking about “lawfare,” as if due process was some sort of Islamist plot: they’re talking about people like Behar Azmy of Seton Hall Law School, who have made it possible to remain proud of being an American even as our government has dragged the Stars and Stripes through the mud.

Footnote *Tom Maguire is an especially skilled practitioner of this slimy rhetorical trick.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: