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Tue January 3, 2012
Dr. Robert Pallitto, Seton Hall University - The Use of Torture
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Robert Pallitto of Seton Hall University explains that the U.S. government's approach to torture has changed little in the last century.
Robert Pallitto is an associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University where he teaches courses in public law and public administration. His research focuses on contemporary political theory and constitutional law and in 2010 he published The Legacy of the Magna Carta in Recent Detainees' Rights Decisions. He is currently working on a study of torture in the U.S.
Dr. Robert Pallitto - The Use of Torture
One of the big questions in the media these days is whether torture should be used to interrogate terrorists and prevent future attacks. When I hear these discussions, I get the sense that we are facing this question for the first time in our post-9/11 world. Even the famous "ticking bomb" hypothetical, beloved by politicians and philosophers alike, is raised as something-we-might-have to-do-someday. You'll recognize the case: Terrorist plants bomb that will go off in an hour. Millions will die. Terrorist is in custody and isn't talking. Should interrogators use torture to find the bomb and save millions of lives? In this new and dangerous world, so the story goes, we might have to think hard about our opposition to torture.
After listening to this talk for some time, I began investigating the purported novelty of the torture question and I found a very different story. Torture has been with us since colonial times. In my recent research, I collected more than 100 government documents showing torture in colonial statutes, torture of slaves, torture in the Philippines and in Vietnam, and government-funded torture research. A profound ambivalence can be seen throughout. State actors know it's wrong but find reasons to do it anyway. And this ambivalence echoes across four centuries.
There are very good reasons to oppose torture categorically, reasons both practical and moral. Torture doesn't work. It can't be contained once begun. It violates core principles of our political tradition. But in addition to exploring those reasons for saying "no" to torture, we should also examine our own history. When we realize what the US has done rather than wondering about what we might do in the future, when we replace hypothetical with the actual, we can see that we have been here before. Water torture in the Philippines did not save American lives, but it did generate a lot of anger and revulsion. President Roosevelt responded with simultaneous condemnation and justification in 1902 much like President Bush did in 2002. Contexts change, but arguments remain the same. The similarity of their responses suggests that we have learned little from our past.