Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Mirko Bagaric's stance on the legalization of torture in certain circumstances has been ridiculed by Australia's lefty bloggers. Some on the right are also opposed to legalised torture. Having read quite a few posts and comments at a number of sites I thought it best to have a think about my supposed support for Bagaric.

The following Tim Dunlop excerpt had a profound impact on my thinking as I reconsidered my position:
The reason we have laws--that we are a nation of laws--is not just to provide sanction against certain proscribed acts but to make a statement, as a society, that we believe some things to be wrong and worthy of sanction. Embedded in the law is a philosophical statement of values. We criminalise rape because we believe it to be statement about how we value individuals. We outlaw theft because as a society we believe in the value of private property. We outlaw torture because we consider it so aborhent that it devalues us as a society and as individuals. And in a sense, in each of these cases, including torture, we apply a version of the golden rule: we wouldn't want this stuff done to us or to our loved ones so as a society we choose to say that these things can be done to no-one and that we will offer individuals protection from them. Call it enlightened self-interest if you prefer or protecting ourselves from our own worst natures. It was this principle I was reminding the Professor of when I called the post below 'Let's try it on his daughter'.

Thus it is worth going back to an earlier post by John Quiggin in which he considers the "ticking bomb" scenario that Professor Bagaric and others seem to think is the slam dunk justification:
In response to the exposure of widespread torture of Coalition prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, it's inevitable that the "ticking bomb" problem should be raised. As Harry Clarke asks in the comments to this thread: 'You hold a terrorist who knows the location of a defusable bomb which, if exploded, will kill x million people. Do you have the right to torture him/her to find the bomb?'

Instead of offering an answer to this question, I'm going to look at a question that follows immediately, but doesn't seem to have been asked. Suppose that you have used torture to extract information from a prisoner in the belief (correct or not) that doing so was justified by a "ticking bomb" situation. What should you do next?
Well, after reading the anti-terror arguments above, I've concluded that Dunlop and Quiggin are even loonier than I imagined.

Amongst other things, laws are meant to protect us from those who would do us harm. If we must do harm in order to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm, so be it. Thus, difficult federal prisoners in the so called super-maximum security prisons in the United States are increasingly being subjected to "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" tantamount to torture – under the currently over-broad definition wherein wrapping a Muslim in an Israeli flag, stomping on a Koran or pointing a gun at someone constitutes torture. What difference does it make if the torture is acute, as it would be in the case of a terrorist or supposed terrorist being interrogated, or chronic, as it is in the case of the long term super-max prisoners?

Dunlop has at least addressed the issue, Quiggin, unable to formulate a response, answers a question with a question. Regardless, they both want interrogators, possibly under immense pressure to extract time sensitive information, to abide by the law as it stands and make nice-nice with those being interrogated: violate the rights of someone being interrogated, even if making a good faith effort to obtain information that might save lives, and expect the full weight of the federal judiciary to fall on your head. In reality, it is the interrogators who are being intimidated, not the interrogated. Since the lefties can't get at Bush they're willing to settle for intimidating his surrogates, the interrogators.

Oh yeah, one more thing, if torture was to be legalised in certain circumstances, it does not mean we are becoming like the enemy. Unlike those who seek to terrorize, we will always find torture distasteful at best – thus the ongoing debate. Our restricted situational use of torture will not encourage the enemy to use torture. They need no excuse.

Now, if Dunlop and Quiggin had told me I'm right, I'd seriously have to question my position.

Update: Here's The Village Voice's Ward Harkavy on Bagaric in The Bush Beat column:
Yes, but who decides what "saving an innocent person" means? George W. Bush's handlers treat Halliburton and other corporate profiteers like cute little innocent puppies. Would you have those handlers decide whether torture is justified?
Lefties pretty much can't write an anti-Bush article without working in a Halliburton angle somewhere.


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