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Grow Up To Be A Debaser


Tara McKelvey had a terrific article in The Nation recently about academics left and right–some of whom have been called “libertarians”–who have engaged in casual defenses of torture. She’s particularly good at identifying the idea, also so evident in the defenses of Bush’s illegal surveillance, that the nation’s toughness and manliness are somehow at risk if we don’t violate as many rights as possible (even if it requires repudiating long-held theoretical commitments) in the name of not-terribly-well-specified advantages supposedly gained in fighting terrorism:

Dershowitz may be more willing than most academics to talk about specifics. But a number of professors on the “torture circuit”–the talks, roundtables and debates on the subject that have taken place at universities, law centers and conferences over the past four years–have echoed his points. For these professors, the message is clear: Toughen up. In a debate with Physicians for Human Rights executive director Leonard Rubenstein in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 28, 2003, for example, Harvard Law School professor Richard Parker balked when Rubenstein said torture should be forbidden under any circumstances. “The idea that anybody would take an absolutist position seemed kind of absurd to him,” Rubenstein recalls.

Another Harvard law professor, Philip Heymann, with Juliette Kayyem, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, influenced Congresswoman Jane Harman’s drafting of legislation that would authorize harsh interrogation techniques under certain conditions. Harman discussed the proposal in a speech at Georgetown University on February 7 and was criticized by human rights activists. Quietly, the Harvard plan was dropped.

In some cases, the academics have crossed into government service. In The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, co-editor Karen Greenberg, executive director of NYU School of Law’s Center on Law and Security, says many of the people on the “path to torture” have affiliations with the academy, including, most famously, John Yoo, who served as attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and helped draft memos that outlined a strict definition of torture. Yoo studied at Harvard and got a law degree from Yale. He has taught at the University of Chicago Law School and is now a professor at UC Berkeley Law School, Boalt Hall.

In an essay titled “Torture, Terrorism, and Interrogation” in Torture: A Collection, edited by Sanford Levinson, Richard Posner, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, agrees with Dershowitz, writing that “if the stakes are high enough torture is permissible.” Interestingly, Posner seems to think torture is more acceptable if it takes place far from home. “Torture is uncivilized, but civilized nations are able to employ uncivilized means, at least in situations of or closely resembling war, without becoming uncivilized in the process,” he writes. “I suspect that this is particularly true when the torture is being administered by military personnel in a foreign country.”

And, alas, even professors at CNUY are implicated:

A CUNY professor goes further. Philosophy professor Michael Levin is the author of “The Case for Torture,” a 1982 essay he continues to defend. “Perhaps the most terrifying moment came when an urbane American academic [Levin] argued the case for torturing not only suspects but even their infant children, if it would induce them to talk,” writes Robert Shrimsley, reviewing Channel 4’s “Is Torture a Good Idea?” in the March 4 Financial Times. “With his cheery evocation of such appalling techniques, Michael Levin…was a living personification of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.”

Profoundly depressing, but important, stuff. In a related note, I think that the administration should issue an executive order compelling all faux libertarians to sign the Posner Waiver

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