Archive for February 2008

Addressing Torture

February 29, 2008

There has been a great deal of discussion lately of what is and what is not torture and whether Americans should torture in any event.

Recent discussion suggests that there are three levels to the controversy. The first is that there is an international prohibition against torture and that Americans should strive to live up to international standards that include a general prohibition of torture. The second is that there are extreme circumstances in which torture may be justified. But these must be understood on a case by case basis. This is the classical argument that we would be justified in torturing someone who had planted a bomb that is about to blow up and kill many people. If we knew that the prisoner before us could prevent the catastrophe by divulging the location of the bomb, it would make sense to use torture. Scalia has recently made this argument, and it is a good one. But it should not be confused with the government’s argument that we have a right to torture persons who may have had a hand in terrorism or planning terrorism at some later date just because it might be helpful. This generalized use of torture for possible and indefinite objectives is what got us into difficulty in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and all the other sad stories of the last few years. Senator McCain, who has experienced torture, has taken a strong stand against this casual use of torture.

It would help if those involved in the controversy would keep these three levels in mind. The first two can be defended on humanitarian grounds. The third cannot.


On the Beach: Wrong-headed Rightfulness

February 29, 2008

My wife and I just had the opportunity to see “On the Beach”, the anti-war picture issued in 1959 on the basis of a book by Neville Shute. It is the story of the Australians waiting until all would be killed by nuclear radiation that had killed everyone else in the world. I did not see it at the time it came out, because I was on the other side of the great divide over nuclear war. At the Hudson Institute about that time, I agreed with the rest of the staff that the book and picture were sheer propaganda. And they were. The idea that a nuclear war would produce a cloud of radioactivity that would over a period of months spread over the world until all humanity was destroyed misrepresented the understanding of what would happen even in the worst war. (Radiation would travel in dust clouds at much higher altitudes and much faster.) The idea that there was nothing anyone could do was also inaccurate. There were many forms of protection that even the Australians would know, and they should spend their time improving these defenses. Without minimizing the awfulness of a full-scale nuclear war, all would not be killed.

But as with many examples of exaggeration by scientists or others in such controversies, there was a good deal of truth in the confusion that would reign as to who actually started the war, and why anyone should have believed that war could be made so terrible that major war would become impossible (a notion stated very early by Winston Churchill and still widely believed today — hence our stockpiles — and presented as an actual issue in the discussion of “the doomsday machine” in Kubrick’s famous anti-war picture “Dr. Strangelove”).

A surprising number of arguments based on pseudo-science have turned out to be helpful in the long run. Ruth Benedict’s “Patterns of Culture” had a tremendous formative influence on anthropology and how we think about others, while Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” changed the thinking of a generation about sexual morality. Both books it turns out were highly inaccurate, yet they perhaps expressed “a higher truth”.

Talking of “higher truth”, at my present age I can understand much of the dialogue in “On the Beach” as a treatment of the problems that people in their seventies and eighties face. They know they will die, and it might be soon. They know that there is essentially no escaping such a relatively early death. So the varieties of ways in which the characters in the movie face their individual and collective fates takes on a real meaning for many of us — certainly not the meaning that Shute had in mind.