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The ethics of torture

September 8, 2008

The ethics of torture

Is it ever OK to torture someone?What if they have information that might prevent another 9-11? Or prevent a death of someone you know? And what exactly is torture?These prickly questions will be addressed at a forum sponsored by the Philosophy Department, to take place at 7 p.m., Sept. 15, at the Scandinavian Cultural Center.

Pauline Kaurin, assistant professor of philosophy, and David Perry, professor of ethics at the U.S. Army War College, will debate the ethics of torture.

Perry, ’81, is the Gen. Maxwell Taylor Chair of the Profession of Arms at the war college located in Pennsylvania. Perry earned his bachelor’s in religion from PLU in 1981 and Ph.D. in ethics and society from the University of Chicago divinity school in 1993. Kaurin, who met Perry at a faculty seminar at the Naval Academy, invited Perry to come to campus this fall.

Perry is going to discuss the ethics of torture when viewed through the lens of warfare and intelligence gathering.

“He’s going to be asking, in intelligence gathering, are there circumstances where it’s okay to use torture?” Kaurin said.

Kaurin will be looking at the rules soldiers follow when deciding whether to torture, or not. And yes, there are rules on this, she said.

“I will be looking at it logistically, from a soldier’s perspective,” she said. “Is there a way to torture ethically, consistent with the rules of war?”

The Geneva Convention expressly forbids the use of torture, she said. But the Bush Administration has tweaked the definition of what it considers torture. Now, sleep deprivation and water boarding, where water is poured over the head covered in a sack or cloth to simulate drowning, is not considered torture, she noted.

Kaurin holds a PhD in philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia and is a specialist in military ethics, war theory, philosophy of law and applied ethics.

“I guess David and I just want a chance to argue with each other,” Kaurin laughed. “We don’t come from the same perspective, but we will model what intellectual discourse looks like for the students.”

The topic of the U.S. military torturing prisoners broke on the U.S. consciousness four years ago, when both CBS and Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Hundreds of pictures, photographed by military personal, were displayed in the news, on the Internet and in magazines to a shocked U.S. public. They showed bodies, men screaming in agony as they were being struck by soldiers and prisoners being hooked up to electrodes or being led around on leashes like dogs. The iconic picture (shown above), taken by a soldier, was published worldwide, and became the shorthand for the treatment of prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib.

The U.S. Department of Defense demoted the commander of the Iraq prison, and removed 17 soldiers and officers from duty. Seven of the soldiers were charged with dereliction of duty. Two soldiers, including a woman, were court marshaled and imprisoned in 2005.

Three years later, the American public is still divided on conflicted on the issue.

“We want to be the good guys, but if we do torture, we don’t want anyone to know about it,” Kaurin said. “Recent polls show that we want it both ways. We want to be able to torture if it will save lives, but we don’t want to look bad. You can’t have both.”