Monthly Archives: September 2006

Luban on torture

My friend and former colleague David Luban effectively summarized the torture issue and achieved a blogger’s trifecta. First, he posted a strong piece–bitterly funny yet substantive–on Balkinization. Then Slate reprinted it virtually verbatim. And finally, Senator Dodd cited it on the floor of the US Senate. Dodd said, “There was an article written recently by Professor Luban, a professor at Georgetown University, titled ‘Forget Nuremberg–How Bush’s new torture bill eviscerates the promise of Nuremberg.’ I ask unanimous consent that the entire article be printed in the RECORD.” (There being no objection, the blog post was printed; but Dodd lost the vote.)

Luban begins:

The burning question is: What did the Bush administration do to break John McCain when a North Vietnamese prison camp couldn’t do it?

Could it have been “ego up”? I’m told ego up is not possible with a U.S. senator. That probably also rules out ego down. Fear up harsh? McCain doesn’t have the reputation of someone who scares easily. False flag? Did he think they were sending him to the vice president’s office? No, he already knew he was in the vice president’s office. Wait, I think I know the answer: futility?which the Army’s old field manual on interrogation defined as explaining rationally to the prisoner why holding out is hopeless. Yes, the explanation must be that the Bush lawyers would have successfully loopholed any law McCain might write, so why bother? Futility might have done the trick.

service and resume padding

We know from Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto’s work (pdf) that many high school students believe they should volunteer in order to increase their chances of being admitted to college. Friedland and Morimoto note that this is even true of students who are not likely to apply to competitive colleges. The perceived need to volunteer for college admissions may partly explain the big increase in the volunteering rate.

Someone asked me today how many colleges actually consider applicants’ service records. I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but I suspect that it’s mainly the smaller, more selective, private colleges that pay any attention at all. A report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling includes a survey in which colleges rated the importance of various factors in determining undergraduate admissions decisions. Only 8 percent gave “considerable importance” to the whole category of “work/extracurricularactivities,” of which service would be a subcategory. This compares to 73.9 percent that mentioned grades and 59.3 that mentioned standardized tests (p.30). The report adds: “Smaller colleges are more likely than larger colleges to consider an interview and counselor or teacher recommendations. They are also slightly more likely than larger colleges to consider a student’s essay and their work/extracurricular activities as important factors.” It appears (from table 32) that the most selective colleges pay the most attention to work and extracurriculars.

I find it interesting that the survey did not ask about volunteer service as a separate category. Service doesn’t seem very prominent on the agenda of college admissions people. Apparently, most high school students have no need to volunteer in order to improve their odds in the college-admissions game. If they volunteer, it should be to change society, to learn, and to help others.

pitching the vote

Wonkette (not that I read her, or anything) thinks that this expensively produced ad will actually turn off young voters, because it’s corny and unrealistic. It shows voting to be a “pointless charade enjoyed by gullible old people.”

I’m not certain what to think. On one hand, the spot advocates voting: for no particular purpose. I assume that people vote for or against something (often something controversial); but there is no hint in the ad of what those issues might be. The arguments it gives for voting are all personal and all positive, which makes it quite different from real political discourse. Also, I must say that I’m always suspicious of generic appeals to vote. Since voting per se is uncontroversial, a pro-voting ad is a safe way to promote a brand name without alienating anyone.

On the other hand, evidence from field experiments shows that young people are more likely to vote when someone tells them to–including when they are given nonpartisan messages that emphasize civic duty (pdf). This broadcast spot might work as well as a phone call; and we know that calls boost turnout. The URL advertised at the end leads to information about registering and voting, although there’s nothing on the site about issues or candidates.

torture: against honor and liberty

In the Hamdan decision, the Supreme Court said that torture was our responsibility. We couldn’t allow the president to decide secretly whether and when to obey the Geneva Convention. There would have to be a public law, passed by our representatives, subject to our review at the next election.

Alas, the Congress appears likely to pass legislation that will permit torture, buoyed by polls that suggest the American people prefer to sacrifice our ancient common law principles in favor of spurious security. Our national honor and liberty are at risk. Those are old-fashioned terms, more securely anchored in conservative than in progressive thought. Yet they are precisely the correct terms, as I shall argue here.

Torture is dishonorable because of the perverted personal relationship that it creates between the torturer and the victim. That is why people of honor do not torture, and nations with honor do not condone it. As David Luban writes: “The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim–in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim’s body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim’s spirit.”

Torture may not be the worse injustice. To bomb from 30,000 feet can be more unjust, because more may die. To imprison 5.6 million Americans may be more unjust, because one in 37 of us spends months or years in dangerous, demeaning, state-run facilities. But there is a difference between injustice and dishonor. Bombing people and locking them up are impersonal, institutional acts. Torture is as intimate as rape. It sullies in a way that injustice does not. That is why the House of Lords ruled in 2005: “The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it.”

Torture threatens liberty because it gives the state the power to generate testimony and evidence contrary to fact, contrary even to the will of the witness. It thus removes the last constraint against tyranny, which is truth. Torture was forbidden in English common law since the middle ages, not because medievals were sqeamish about cruelty–their punishments and executions were spectacularly cruel–but because a king who could use torture in investigations and interrogations could reach any conclusions he wanted.

Torture is personal, yet torture is an institution. One cannot simply decide to torture in a one-off case, a hypothetical instance of a ticking time bomb. To be effective, torture requires training, equipment, expertise, and settings. The bureaucracy of torture then inevitably seeks to justify and sustain itself–if necessary, by using torture to generate evidence of its effectiveness. As Phronesisaical says, “Torture requires an institution of torture, which … entails a broader torture program than the administration would have us believe.” Again, the Lords were right:

The lesson of history is that, when the law is not there to keep watch over it, the practice is always at risk of being resorted to in one form or another by the executive branch of government. The temptation to use it in times of emergency will be controlled by the law wherever the rule of law is allowed to operate. But where the rule of law is absent, or is reduced to a mere form of words to which those in authority pay no more than lip service, the temptation to use torture is unrestrained.

being Pope means never having to say you’re sorry

I have now read the full text of Pope Benedict’s Sept. 12 lecture, a passage of which provoked global controversy and violence. I read it with an open mind and genuine interest, but it seems to me that the section on Islam is gratuitous and rather poorly argued.

As the Pope said in his quasi-apology, he meant his discussion of Islam to be incidental to his main theme, which concerns the relationship between faith and reason in Christianity. This is the skeleton of his argument:

The Greeks, being philosophical, decided that God could not (or would not) act “unreasonably”: in other words, against logos. On this basis, Socrates and other sophisticated Greek thinkers rejected myth, which had described gods acting arbitrarily. Their equation of divinity with reason already influenced Jewish thought before Jesus’ time. The Hebrew Bible evolved from mythical thinking toward an abstract, rational, omniscient deity (first evident in the words from the burning Bush: “I am”). The association of reason with divinity was also essential in the Gospels, as shown by John’s prologue: “In the beginning was ho logos.”

According to Benedict, the union of faith and reason naturally took place in Europe, where reason had been born, not in the irrational East: “Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”

However, faith and reason have come apart in Europe since the 16th century. First Protestants tried to strip the Bible of Greek metaphysics and treat it only as a sequence of literal events. Liberal theologians (including some Catholics) reinforced this tendency when they advocated a “return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization.”

It is a mistake to drive philosophical reason out of religion, Benedict argues, because God is rational and can be understood by means of philosophy. It is also an error to imagine science without faith:

[The] modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.

Because modern rationality assumes that nature has a mathematical character, science hints at transcendence. But because it views empirical verification as the criterion of rationality, it rules out the possibility of God. This is a contradictory position, Benedict thinks. He recommends that we “acknowledge unreservedly” the benefits of science, yet we must “[broaden] our concept of reason and its application” so that it can encompass faith. By reuniting faith and reason, the West will reopen a dialogue with “profoundly religious cultures,” which cannot fathom “a reason which is deaf to the divine.”

All of the above seems fairly mainstream for a conservative Catholic theologian. But the Pope chooses to illustrate his argument with a digression about Islam. He says that for the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” This “statement is self evident” to “a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy.” In contrast, for an “educated Persian” who debates Paleologus, “God is absolutely transcendent …, not bound even by his own word.”

This is a very odd example to support Benedict’s major point. Did Paleologus really emphasize that conversion by the sword was “unreasonable”–incompatible with logos–and thus alien to God? Or did he simply say that it was wrong? Did the Persian really reply that God was “absolutely transcendent,” and therefore it was appropriate to convert people forcibly despite the dictates of reason? Or did the Persian agree with the Emperor about forcible conversion, citing Qur’an 2:256: “There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way.”

Benedict calls this passage from the Qur’an “one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.” Later, according to Benedict, Mohammed preached holy war. I am not competent to assess that interpretation of the Qur’an. But I would note a resemblance between Paleologus and the young Mohammed: both led groups who were very vulnerable to conquest. Indeed, Byzantium soon fell to a Moslem army (one that tolerated Christians and Jews). On the other hand, when Christians have been triumphant, they have not always been eager to argue that faith must be voluntary.

David Cook writes, “Islam was not in fact ‘spread by the sword’?conversion was not forced on the occupants of conquered territories?but the conquests created the necessary preconditions for the spread of Islam.” One could write exactly the same thing about Christianity. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes the advantages enjoyed by the first Franciscans in Mexico: “The fact that they had found the territory conquered, and the inhabitants pacified and submissive, had greatly aided the missionaries; they could, moreover, count on the support of the Government, and the new converts on its favour and protection.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia denies that Mexican natives were converted by force, but there were certainly wars declared for the purpose of converting countries to Christianity. As the Encyclopedia itself states: “The meaning of the word crusade has been extended to include all wars undertaken in pursuance of a vow, and directed against infidels, i.e. against Mohammedans, pagans, heretics, or those under the ban of excommunication. The wars waged by the Spaniards against the Moors constituted a continual crusade from the eleventh to the sixteenth century; in the north of Europe crusades were organized against the Prussians and Lithuanians; the extermination of the Albigensian heresy was due to a crusade, and, in the thirteenth century the popes preached crusades against John Lackland and Frederick II.”

Thus I can imagine the “educated Persian” (a patronizing description, by the way) arguing that mass conversions to Christianity have often followed conquest. He could have observed cases in which Moslems tolerated Jews and Christians and cited the Book of Revelations to illustrate Christian bloodthirstiness: “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.”

The Pope was widely criticized for his lecture. As we know, he issued a new statement:

At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.

I by no means condone violent reactions to Pope Benedict’s lecture. However, it strikes me that:

1) The digression about Islam and violence was gratuitous in an essay supposedly about faith and reason;

2) The Emperor Paleologus was obviously quoted to express Benedict’s personal thoughts;

3) The equation of Europe with reason (and the East with arbitrariness) is disturbing; and

4) It shows bad faith to depict Islam as a religion spread by the sword without at least noting the advantages that Christianity has reaped from violence.