TORTURE ‘OFF THE BOOKS’?

Cambridge, Mass.

William Schulz, in his respectful but selectively critical review of “less than two of [Shouting Fire]’s 550 pages,” misses the point of my proposal regarding torture warrants [“The Torturer’s Apprentice,” May 13]. I am against torture, and I am seeking ways of preventing or minimizing its use. My argument begins with the empirical claim–not the moral argument–that if an actual ticking bomb case were ever to arise in this country, torture would in fact be used. FBI and CIA sources have virtually acknowledged this. Does Schulz agree or disagree with this factual assertion? If it is true that torture would in fact be used, then the following moral question arises: whether it is worse in the choice of evils for this torture to take place off the books, under the radar screen and without democratic accountability–or whether it is worse for this torture to be subjected to democratic accountability by means of some kind of judicial approval and supervision. This is a difficult and daunting question, with arguments on all sides. In my forthcoming book Why Terrorism Works, I devote an entire chapter to presenting the complexity of this issue, rather than simply proposing it as a heuristic, as I did in the two pages of Shouting Fire on which Schulz focuses. Schulz simply avoids this horrible choice of evils by arguing that it does not exist and by opting for a high road that will simply not be taken in the event that federal agents believe they can actually stop a terrorist nuclear or bioterrorist attack by administering nonlethal torture.

Schulz asks whether I would also favor “brutality warrants,” “testilying” warrants and prisoner rape warrants. The answer is a heuristic “yes,” if requiring a warrant would subject these horribly brutal activities to judicial control and political accountability. The purpose of requiring judicial supervision, as the Framers of our Fourth Amendment understood better than Schulz does, is to assure accountability and judicial neutrality. There is another purpose as well: It forces a democratic country to confront the choice of evils in an open way. My question back to Schulz is, Do you prefer the current situation, in which brutality, testilying and prison rape are rampant, but we close our eyes to these evils?

There is, of course, a downside: legitimating a horrible practice that we all want to see ended or minimized. Thus we have a triangular conflict unique to democratic societies: If these horrible practices continue to operate below the radar screen of accountability, there is no legitimation, but there is continuing and ever-expanding sub rosa employment of the practice. If we try to control the practice by demanding some kind of accountability, we add a degree of legitimation to it while perhaps reducing its frequency and severity. If we do nothing, and a preventable act of nuclear terrorism occurs, then the public will demand that we constrain liberty even more. There is no easy answer.

I praise Amnesty International for taking the high road–that is its job, because it is not responsible for making hard judgments about choices of evil. Responsible government officials are in a somewhat different position. Professors have yet a different responsibility: to provoke debate about issues before they occur and to challenge absolutes. That is what Shouting Fire is all about.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ


SCHULZ REPLIES

New York City

Neither I nor Amnesty International can be accused of having closed our eyes to the reality of torture, police brutality or prison rape. Of course, some authorities may utilize torture under some circumstances, just as others choose to take bribes. The question is, What is the best way to eradicate these practices? By regulating them or outlawing them and enforcing the law? That an evil seems pervasive or even (at the moment) inevitable is no reason to grant it official approval. We tried that when it came to slavery, and the result was the Civil War. Had we applied Professor Dershowitz’s approach to child labor, American 10-year-olds would still be sweating in shops.

WILLIAM F. SCHULZ


HITCHENS’S ‘CULTURE WAR’

Princeton, N.J.

Christopher Hitchens argues that “suicide murders would increase and not decrease” if a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians moved closer to reality [“Minority Report,” May 13]. This claim seems to bolster Sharon’s cataclysmic “war on terror” in the occupied territories: If terrorists seek to destroy peace and only feed on Israel’s generosity and sincerity, surely Sharon is correct to eliminate “terror” as a precondition for negotiations?

In fact, the Oslo process has moved the Palestinians further from the goal of a viable state, and the Israeli left’s best offers to date (at Camp David and Taba) envisage the annexation of the vast majority of settlers to Israel in perpetuity along with blocs of land, which would fatally compromise a nascent Palestine. As for Hitchens’s observation that the first suicide bombings coincided with the Rabin/Peres government: How does this undermine the explanation that Israel’s prolonged oppression has created and fueled the bombers? Rabin and Peres imposed a curfew on Palestinians rather than Israeli settlers after the murder of twenty-nine Arabs by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron early in 1994 (the first suicide bombing was in response to this); they sent death squads into the West Bank and Gaza to kill militants and those who happened to be in their vicinity (the wave of suicide bombings in the spring of 1996 followed one such assassination); and they greatly expanded the settlements, contributing their share to the broader trend of illegal settlement expansion that’s doubled the number of Israelis living across the Green Line since 1992.

Hitchens’s promotion of a “culture war” between religious extremists and secular opponents of “thuggery and tribalism” obfuscates the reality of Israel’s prolonged and enduring oppression of Palestinians. His argument that a more generous Israeli policy would lead to more Palestinian violence, meanwhile, serves to legitimize Sharon’s current tactics. How did such a clearsighted commentator become so myopic? Perhaps if Hitchens stopped looking at every situation through the lens of the “war on terror,” he’d regain his former clarity of vision.

NICHOLAS GUYATT


LBJ A RACIST? THINK AGAIN

Washington, DC

I share Eric Alterman’s admiration for the work of biographer Robert Caro [“Stop the Presses,” May 6]. But why does Alterman feel compelled to refer to Lyndon Johnson as a “thoroughgoing racist”? Johnson was a white man born in 1908 in the most racist region of the most racist country on earth. He was born in a time and place where racism was accepted as part of the atmosphere, where lynching was commonplace, where black people led lives of unimaginable degradation (see Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind, a portrait of the early twentieth-century Jim Crow South, which has to be read to be believed).

Of course, given his background, political ambitions and ineligibility for sainthood, Johnson used racist language and shared racist assumptions. Who from that time and place, wanting what he wanted, did not? But what distinguishes Johnson, at all stages in his public career, was his relative lack of public racism. Johnson was a New Deal Congressman from 1937 to ’48 who never strayed from loyalty to the national Democratic Party even though conservative Texas Democrats were in revolt against it from 1944 onward. Of course, running for the Senate against a Dixiecrat in 1948 as Southern resistance to civil rights was beginning to build, he opposed the Truman civil rights program. That was the minimum required to be elected to Texas statewide office. Given the pathological ferocity of Johnson’s ambition, sticking with Truman for re-election, as Johnson did, took guts that year. As a senator, Johnson was never identified as a leader of the Southern bloc or as an enemy of civil rights. Again, especially in public, he said and did the political minimum to pay homage to the racist consensus. Caro evidently describes his involvement in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the forerunner of all the other civil rights laws to come. Texas black and Hispanic voters never doubted that, given the alternatives, LBJ was their man.

Johnson later became the greatest civil rights President in history, pushing through the epochal changes in the laws, appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and going so far as to vet prospective federal judges with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Blacks who worked with him, like Roger Wilkins, remember him fondly while acknowledging his ancestral racism, which he tried, not always successfully, to transcend. But if Johnson is a “thoroughgoing racist,” where does that leave Richard Russell, James Eastland or Strom Thurmond–or Richard Nixon, for that matter? What about Barry Goldwater, who was probably less “racist” than Johnson but was an opponent of all civil rights legislation and was the leader of the forces of unrepentant segregation (i.e., racist murder and oppression) in 1964?

As with Abraham Lincoln, also now under renewed attack on similarly ahistorical grounds, to describe Johnson as an extreme racist flattens the historical landscape and renders the fierce conflicts of a past age meaningless. There is nothing wrong with honestly describing anybody’s racial views, including those of Lincoln or Johnson. But in studying history, context is everything. And in studying Lincoln or Johnson, what matters most is not the ways they shared their contemporaries’ racial attitudes but the ways they did not, as reflected in their words and actions.

PETER M. CONNOLLY


ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

There’s a bit of hyperbole in Peter Connolly’s thoughtful letter, and I disagree with his point about it taking guts to stick with the Democratic President, but by and large I think his criticism is on the mark, and I appreciate it. He is right. Context is everything. Johnson may have been a racist, but unlike most politicians in his time and place he was not a “race man.” That’s an important distinction, and I wish I had considered it.

ERIC ALTERMAN