and will publish a new book, "Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage, Covert Action and Interrogation," in 2009. Kaurin is a specialist in military ethics, war theory, philosophy of law and applied ethics. Kaurin and Perry met at a 2004 symposium on just-war theory hosted by the Naval Academy in Maryland. Before a packed room of 200 people, the two sparred over the ethics not only of torture, but the ethics of soldiers in a wartime situation. Both came to the same conclusion, albeit traveling different paths. Condoning torture is not an option in our society or in our military, they agreed. Yet both added that the United States nevertheless does use torture, either through the CIA or by sending prisoners to allied nations where these practices are considered part of the job. “Whether we like to think about it or not, torture is happening in some part of the world, right now,” Kaurin said. “And it may be happening under the auspices of the U.S. government.” Kaurin noted later that there were some professors and staff who questioned and opposed her even bringing the topic forth for debate. “They were frankly appalled we were even talking about it,” she said. Or apparently, that an alumnus might be making a case for its use. “I hope you don’t come away thinking that I believe we should change our laws on torture,” said Perry recently. “I don’t.” Perry argued that while torture might actually work in some cases, U.S. treaty obligations (under the Geneva and Torture conventions) categorically prohibit both military and CIA personnel from using torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in interrogations – even of suspected terrorists. Drawing on recent books like Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side,” he claimed that after 9-11 President Bush received very poor legal advice from advisers on the Vice President’s staff and in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. This advice led to many of the notorious detainee abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Perry also argued, though, that if the law were silent, terrorists could not plausibly claim an absolute moral right not to be tortured, having forfeited that right in plotting to murder scores of innocent people. He found that conclusion disturbing, but compelling nonetheless.
David Perry argues that U.S. treaty obligations prohibit torture while professor Pauline Kaurin looks on.
“If you say ‘I only have to be moral when others are moral,’ then no one has to be moral because there will always be someone who breaks the rules.” —Pauline Kaurin
However, after considering the potential consequences of legally permitting intelligence officers to use torture against suspected terrorists, especially the probability of their accidentally torturing innocent people, Perry urged the U.S. to firmly uphold its current treaty obligations and never to use torture. Or rather, Congress and the Supreme Court having made it clear in 2006 that military personnel must never use torture, Perry argued that the same standard ought to apply to the CIA. Recent polling has shown that the American public is ambivalent, at best, about the use of torture, said Kaurin. “I don’t think the public even took this issue seriously until 9-11,” she said. “But I think that has changed public perception and, in general, they feel vulnerable now.” After the debate, a student basically asked why America should stick to the rules, when the other side won’t. “It’s a really difficult question, and I guess it depends what you think the
point of the rules are,” Kaurin mused later. If the goal is to win, at all costs, in the short term, then the choice is simple: Use the most expedient means to get what you want, including torture, she said. However, if you look at what the United States, its democracy and its values mean to the world, then you have to search for a more long-term answer, she argued. “If you value the symbolism that democracy represents and we represent, then you can’t look at a short-term strategy,” she said. The argument that the United States doesn’t need to be or act moral, because no one else is, is a slope that ends up putting everyone in the ethical muck pretty quickly, she said. “If you say ‘I only have to be moral when others are moral,’ then no one has to be moral because there will always be someone who breaks the rules,” she said. That is one of the reasons there was such outrage after the Abu Ghraib prison pictures were made public. “Our allies and the Arab world were saying ‘You hypocrites,’ she said. Would the American public have been as outraged if, in fact, they had not seen the pictures of American soldiers, in uniform, giving thumbs up over dead bodies or forcing detainees into a naked huddle? She doesn’t think so. The pictures stripped away the public firewall of torture happening far away, to other people, she said. She noted that the My Lai massacre story languished on the back pages of the major metropolitan dailies for a year, before the pictures began to appear in 1969. The release of the pictures showing dead women, children and the elderly in ditches, along with the follow-up stories, are considered to be a key turning point in the public’s opinion of the Vietnam War. In the end, Kaurin concludes that the public, in general, is a bit hypocritical on the issue. For the last 30 years, Amnesty International has been making and proving these claims that the U.S. uses, and in a wink-wink way, condones torture, she said. “But it’s one of those things that we mostly ignore,” she said. “You push it aside when you’re going to the grocery store and trying to make ends meet.” S —Barbara Clements
LIFE OF THE MIND > PLU SCENE WINTER 2008 9