Thursday, April 21, 2005

Yoo and Waldron Debate Legal War on Terror

Columbia University's American Constitution Society hosted a discussion between Professors John Yoo (a leading constitutional and foreign relations scholar) and Jeremy Waldron (a distinguished Kantian legal philosopher) on legal aspects of the war on terrorism today, especially torture. As usual, tireless bloggers from Ex Post have "liveblogged" the debate here.

Here are some of the highlights. The hardest question for Professor Waldron:

Question: Let's assume a nuclear device is set to go off in an American city. Are we justified in using torture on 20 suspected terrorists to find out where it is before it kills thousands of people?

Waldron: It's a bad and corrupt question, but I said I would answer it and I will. The answer that law and morality and religion requires that in no circumstances is torture to be used. The law is unambiguous, it's a total prohibition. And for some of us, our morality dictates the same. We would take responsibility for the consequences of the bomb's explosion, for the consequences of our morality.

The question is corrupt for a number of reasons. It is designed to bring the opponent of torture down to the level of the defenders of torture for a single case. The question is corrupt factually; it supposes that torture is capable of getting accurate information. The war on terror is a war of information and intelligence. To think primarily in terms of TV scenarios of massively important pieces of information that we know are there is not realistic. The nature of the relationship between torturer and victim means that the victim will tell the torturer what the torturer thinks he wants to know. Also, the question assumes that somehow we have the people who are trained to torture, yet who will do it only in this one case. There will be a cadre of torturers sitting around looking for work. There will be a culture of torture developed, changing the politics, training and discipline of the CIA and FBI. Everything we know about torture from the 20th century is that it grows out of control. We unleash everything depraved and sadistic in human affairs. We need to think about the trauma to the legal system, of having it be known that we have concocted room for torture. Everything that's had its reference on respect for human dignity begins to totter and crumble under this response of torture.

The hardest question for Prof. Yoo (OK, he didn't get any hard questions, but here is his most interesting response):

Question: Prof. Yoo, you stated that Congress has chosen not to take an absolutist position on torture, because the statute applies only overseas and to extreme and unusual cruelty. Could Congress regulate torture, and to what extent does the executive have un-reviewable authority?

Yoo: Congress made a distinction between torture and things short of torture, and Congress criminalized only the former. As an academic matter, Congress cannot criminalize the legitimate exercise of the president's power. If the president ordered coercive interrogation, can Congress prohibit that? Congress cannot say that it's a crime for the president to use a nuclear weapon or send armies to Europe. In extreme circumstances, the commander in chief power does extend so far as to be unreviewable. But the administration is not ordering or authorizing torture so this has not arisen yet.

Question by T. More: You didn't engage Waldron's discussion of morality.

Yoo: I view the function of a lawyer not to interject my own moral views into what the government should do. So I had to answer whether the GC applies, a distinct question from what we should do as a matter of policy. Applying the GC to detainees isn't legally compelled. I don't think limits on presidential power are compelled by treaty. A lot of these arguments you and Waldron make, I don't disagree with them, but they should be considered separate from the legal analysis.


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