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March 18, 2005

New blog game: Give Mutiliation a Chance

Remember when ticking bomb scenarios were the hot blog game?

In a world where one suspect knows a dark secret and one cop has 10 minutes avert a cataclysm of Biblical proportions...

Good times. "Ticking bomb" scenarios aren't just for torture. You can mix and match, substituting theft, murder, or any depraved behavior that rings your intellectual cherries. It doesn't matter how likely it is that raping a nun is the only way to save a school bus full of small children. That causal connection is built into our thought experiment.

Your opponent might ask "How often does this situation come up, really?" (Poor sap, he'll never know what hit him.) "You intellectual lightweight!" you cry, "You underhanded cheat! You're not addressing my carefully honed thought experiment. Whazza matter? Aren't you man enough to stare nun rape in the face? Go back to your girlie-blog until you're ready to have an adult conversation." Should your opponent mutter something about how this is a stupid question, you can accuse him of being a typical knee jerk liberal who is out of touch with a post 9/11 era in which all thought experiments assume overweening importance.

I resolved to stop playing Ticking Bomb last year. I'm pretty sharp--set me up three or four times, and by the fifth time, I really think hard about jumping into the fray. Luckily, after a few more brisk rounds of Ticking Bomb, even the earnest and fair-minded liberals got bored with it. It looked like we were going to have to back to boring policy questions about extraordinary rendition and prisoner deaths.

Luckily, Eugene Volokh has taken the torture game to the next level: "You'd Enjoy Torturing Child Rapists To Death, Right? And If Not, What's Wrong With You?":

…I am especially pleased that the killing — and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act — was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging…

…I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness.

It's an exciting development for the armchair torture contingent. We've segued from "Could torture ever be an acceptable means to an end?" to "Torture is a morally obligatory punishment that the state should inflict on its own citizens, even if we have to rewrite the Constitution to do it."

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Comments

I have something to add, something different and that I've been thinking about for awhile, off and on maybe for years, but that was brought home to me when I read, recently, a book about the Soviet assault on Hitler's Germany. The Nazis launched a war of vengeance against the USSR, fantastically blaming the Bolsheviks and Jews for the collapse of the Wilhelmine state. The Soviets, in their turn, raped, and looted, and murdered their way through Germanic towns and regions all the way to Berlin to expatiate their own, very real, suffering. If Germans weren't there to rape, no matter. Red Army troops would rape Poles. They'd rape and murder the inmates of Nazi labor camps. They'd steal from the starving victims of the Nazi terror, murder German Communists. The even violated Jews freed from a camp in Berlin in the last days of the Reich. Vengeance, you see, is all about the victim, and the victim's needs. It isn't about justice, so vengeance may be inflicted on those who aren't guilty. If sating the lust for blood stirred up in the harmed is what you want, the source of the blood is less important that the fact that it is spilled, publicly. If Mr. Volokh loves vengeance, sees the benefit of cruelty, he's half the way to dismissing the law altogether. You don't switch humanity, and decency, off and on as though it was an electric circuit. You allow yourself a little pleasure at the pain of others, because they're so clearly deserving, and the next thing you know, you're making a pyramid of naked prisoners who just got swept up from the streets and about whom you know nothing. You take a job to advance medical science, even if it means using a few unwilling subjects, and a few years later you're standing at a smoky railhead whipping crowds of newly-arrived Jewish children toward a gas chamber. How did it come to this? It came to it when you left the path of strict justice. It came when you tried to make peace with sadism. It came when you dismissed the humanity of another so that you could use his agony as a balm.

History books are filled with the stories of societies that decided they could treat with the abyss, and found themselves delivered into it. There's a reason that Satan always wins those fabled bargains. He knows the neighborhood. He's got the odds down pat.

Dear Brian C.B.,

Your point is EXCELLENT. And after all, isn't that what the whole war in Iraq is about--Saudi Arabian terrorists attack us so we attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with it?

The irony here is that this is from the same quarter that regularly excoriates the notion of "if it feels good, do it." For some reason, that's not an acceptable philosophy with regard to, say, consensual sex acts between adult. Yet here it's presented as an acceptable justification for torture and mutilation.

I'm no fan of Volokh, but to be fair to him, I believe he is a libertarian.


Has any psychologists weighed in on how harmful participating in vengence like Volokh wants actually would be to parents?

This does seem like an important question, but I'm not sure the answer would make that much of a difference. Say it is somehow psychologically harmful (which wouldn't be surprising); is that grounds for prohibiting it? Assuming, for the moment, that we are not concerned with the welfare of the criminal, but of the parents: as long as we told them of the possible harmful effects, how could we justify not letting them do it--for their own good? That's too paternalistic for me.


Dear Brian C.B.,

Your point is EXCELLENT.

I disagree. Brian's argument is one long slippery slope fallacy.

So the Ticking Bomb thought experiment's no good? Fair enough.
Here's a more realistic one that I would like thoughtful people to respond to:
You're on a jury in which an FBI agent is being tried for torture. He admits to using coercive techniques, but his defense is that, thanks to his coercive techniques, he was able to find the child that the person he tortured was molesting.
Would you find him guilty or not?

No, dadahead, my argument is that there is no slope, slippery or otherwise. There's a precipice. The evil may grow in scope, but it's never diluted. It's intrinsic, no less corrosive in the first act than in the one-thousandth.

HOWEVER, I don't see why more people aren't more sympathetic to the sentiment expressed by Volokh.

I see. So, bloodlust is obligatory now, is it?

dadahead,

I'd find him guilty, since he did it. Perhaps with extenuating circumstances, reductions, etc. He broke the law.

When it comes down to it he made a heroic sacrifice - he broke the law to save others knowing he himself would be punished for it. No different than a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies.

I'd much rather have to deal with the occasional worry of how to sentance a good man for violating a law against torture than I would want to deal with a country where its legally sanctioned and part of the system. I'd rather rely on the occasional individual hero to break the law than I would put confidence in the government to restrain itself from using torture.

Sweeny-

I don't know if I'd find him guilty or not, but I think in such a case torture would certainly be justified. However, I think that scenario is also highly unlikely. I think there was a case in Germany, maybe, where something like that was going on, but the kid ended up being dead.


Thad -

When did I say that 'bloodlust' is 'obligatory'? Did Volokh say that? If so, I would distance myself from that. But I didn't get that from his post (at least the one I read). I can't imagine anyone in their right mind would argue that it would be obligatory to take this kind of revenge. I'm not even arguing that it should be permitted. All I'm saying is: surely you can understand the desire to see evil people suffer, right?

Did Volokh say that?

Volokh and others have been strongly implying (and in some cases, actually coming out and saying) that bloodlust is natural and therefore must not be denied.

All I'm saying is: surely you can understand the desire to see evil people suffer, right?

And sure you can understand why civilized societies don't allow people -- or the state, acting as the people's proxy -- to indulge that desire.

dadahead writes: The criminal here was a child rapist and murderer. The lowest possible thing there is.

Actually, I consider torturers and people who enjoy the suffering of others (no matter how "deserving") to be the lowest possible thing there is.

For a society to be a civil society, the state must have an absolute monopoly on physical violence. All punishment must come from agents of the state. If a nation decides that the death penalty is acceptable, then it must be agents of the state that carry out the death sentence. Allowing family members to particpate in the death penalty brings in non-state actors to an act that must be wholly controlled by the state.

This should be obvious to Volkoh. I'm suprised it's not.

Among other problems that come up if Volkoh's ideas were followed, what happens if evidence later emerges proving that the now dead man was actually innocent? When someone is executed and later proved innocent the whole burden of the mistake must rest with the state. The family of the victim must be kept safe from the possibility of participating in the murder of an innocent.

Imagine the scene that Volkoh quotes with approval: family members shout abuse at the prisoner, they vent their hatred for him, they stab him with a knife, they put the noose around his head. Now imagine that this happens in America and that the executed criminal is later proven innocent. What should the family then do about the actions they have commited?

Volkoh here once again demonstrates why he will always be a third-rate thinker.

Suffice it to say, there's a REASON all civilized countries have adopted prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and have forbidden families of victims from direct participation in the punishment of wrongdoers. Seriously, how shallow can a supposed intellectual be, to propose such a deviation from a universal set of practices, without trying to understand what lies behind them, and coming to terms with the history and experiences that drove their adoption?

Volkoh tries to pretend that none of this even matters -- that he can just make a radical proposal like this without in any way reckoning with the enormous weight of considerations that tell against that proposal accumulated over centuries.

In short, Volkoh is your basic opinionated idiot posturing as a genuine thinker. Radical proposals require concerted and demanding rational effort to justify, and Volkoh's too much of a dummy even to get that basic fact of intellectual methodology.

What a cretin.

Actually, I've found Volkoh to be brilliant, and I was shocked by the idiocy he expresses in his recent post. Which is partly why I raise the issue above about the need of the state to monopolize violence in a civil society. Volkoh has, in the past, demonstrated a fine sense of the liberal political tradition, going back to Locke. He has never suggested support for an Ayn Rand style society where only the strongest win out. And of all the posters at Volkoh Conspiracy, I've always found him to be the most moderate. Which is why his recent post is so amazing.

Volkoh surely understands Locke's formulation that humans start off in a State Of Nature where every one has it in their power to do injustice to everyone else. This leads to a State Of War, where family feuds with family for eons, nursing old grudges from centuries before. The only way forward is to advance to a State Of Law. In a State Of Law, it is illegal for any citizen to commit acts of violence against any other citizen, and the state has an absolute monopoloy on all physical violence, which the state should use only to punish those who break the law.

Volkoh knows all this. How he could know all this and still write the post that he wrote is beyond me.

Mind you, I oppose the death penalty. But I didn't want to simply write that I disagree with Volkoh. I wanted to point out that most of what Volkoh has written in the past disagrees with what he writes now.

The problem with all of the discussion and posts about torture is that none of them deal with the real underlying issue, the pleasure that the practice feeds. The pleasure of pumping myself up by grinding the face of some hapless bastard or bastardette into a pile of my excrement: my fear is for naught because now it is their fear. My degradation is for naught because now it is their degradation. I am stronger than them because I can dominate the weakness in myself by inspiring it in those that I dominate.
What's this all about? What but small men's fear of the consequences of their own inadequacy, of the failure of their own half-hearted attempts to "stop another attack," led them to brush aside the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment and needlessly afflict a crowd of suspects. Twas all self-serving. Oh, but the pleasures of power in it all!
Beyond torture, in this post-9/11 world, isn't it time to bring back painful public execution, possibly burning at the stake. Then, we can all exorcise our fears through the enjoyment of the prolonged and painful death of those who frighten us.

Actually, I've found Volkoh to be brilliant, and I was shocked by the idiocy he expresses in his recent post.

I can only say that my experience in reading Volkoh has been quite the contrary.

There's a kind of superficial, flashy "intelligence" that is compatible only with third rate thinking. It rips ideas out of historical or other context, and offers them up as new and original and interesting, while ignoring utterly how and why the conventional wisdom on those matters ever became conventional wisdom. Any mind that seriously aspires to be first rate understands that the HARD work is not in proposing an idea, but in justifying it in opposition to the massive quantity of experience that seems to tell against it.

It is the cheapest, shallowest kind of thinking to believe that a naked idea that runs against all known practices could be intellectually useful or interesting. It is only in combination with a powerful, comprehensive argument against the conventional wisdom that the idea may, or should, take real life. It's the ARGUMENT that is going to be important and valuable here, not the simple presentation of the idea, which is utterly trivial, and typically requires more shamelessness than intelligence.

I don't think that pleasure is what's being fed. Fear, now that's the ticket, the fear of failure, pain, death.

Rather than confront ones self, it's far easier to lash out or transfer to external sources. There will be no looking at mirrors in this country, nosiree.

Why do ya think the vampires don't show up in mirrors? Could you look at yourself after sucking the life from some innocent victims? Do you relish the idea of eating your pets?

Volokh reveals himself as a petulent and shallow little tiny man. And he's a professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA?

Actually, I consider torturers and people who enjoy the suffering of others (no matter how "deserving") to be the lowest possible thing there is.

Really?

So you actually consider Volokh to be worse than, say, the guy that killed Jessica Lunsford?

If so, that is a truly immoral attitude.

Nah, Volokh doesn't have the balls to torture anyone. He just gets off on the fantasy. Grandstanders are still better than murderers.

Hey Frankly,
Maybe if you just keep calling Volokh a 3rd rate thinker, you won't HAVE to deal with the issues!!...
Oh, wait...

Suppose Jessica Lunsford's father managed to get ahold of her killer before the police did. Say that he then proceeded to torture him over the course of a day or so, before finally killing him.

Now, would you consider the father on a moral par with his daughter's killer? I'm not asking whether what the father did (in this hypo) would be right; I'm asking if you would condemn it as harshly as you would the murderer of his daughter.

You don't see the moral chasm between brutalizing and killing an evil child rapist and murderer versus brutalizing and killing an innocent nine-year-old girl? If not, that's fucking sick.

Okay, I just checked Google. There is no such expression as "rings your cherries," intellectual or otherwise. But I might start using it.

Sean, I hate to say it, but your Google-Fu is weak, dude.

[Okay, two of those instances are actually mine, but number three is someone else entirely! Someone I've never even met, to boot.]

I think David Foster Wallace may have originated this expression -- at least, that's the first time I remember seeing it.

dadahead writes: "So you actually consider Volokh to be worse than, say, the guy that killed Jessica Lunsford?"

Did Volokh actually torture someone?

"You don't see the moral chasm between brutalizing and killing an evil child rapist and murderer versus brutalizing and killing an innocent nine-year-old girl?"

I would consider both acts to be sick and twisted. I don't really understand why you are interested in comparing magnitudes of condemnation.

Dadahead, what part of "for a society to be a civil society, the state must have an absolute monopoly on physical violence" don't you understand?

Are you actually suggesting that if Jessica Lunsford's father had done what you suggested, he should not be convicted of murder?

Well, if it's one's own cherries being rung, that's an entirely different matter. That makes perfect sense.

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