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Scalia Defends Torture: It’s ‘Absurd’ To Say The Gov’t Can’t ‘Smack’ A Suspect ‘In The Face’

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"Scalia Defends Torture: It’s ‘Absurd’ To Say The Gov’t Can’t ‘Smack’ A Suspect ‘In The Face’"

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scalid.jpg Today in an interview with BBC Radio’s Law in Action, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia defended torture, claiming that it is not necessarily barred by the Constitution:

Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to find out where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited under the Constitution? Because smacking someone in the face would violate the 8th amendment in a prison context. You can’t go around smacking people about.

Is it obvious that what can’t be done for punishment can’t be done to exact information that is crucial to this society? It’s not at all an easy question, to tell you the truth.

The BBC interviewer, however, objected to Scalia’s use of the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario to justify government torture. “It’s a bizarre scenario,” he said. “Because the fact is, it’s very unlikely you’re going to have the one person who can give you that information. So if you use that as an excuse to commit torture, perhaps that’s a dangerous thing.” Scalia responded:

Seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails, smack them in the face. It would be absurd to say that.

Listen here:

[flv http://video.thinkprogress.org/2008/02/scaliabcbbc44.320.40.flv]

As the BBC interviewer pointed out, ticking time bomb scenarios — where a detainee has knowledge of an imminent attack — are incredibly rare, despite Scalia’s fascination with them. U.S. Air Force Reserve Colonel Steve Kleinman, a longtime military interrogator, testified to the House in November that torture would be “unnecessary” even in such scenarios. Furthermore, intelligence experts say that torture is “ineffective” because it “often produces false information.”

Sharon at Human Rights First looks at Scalia’s arguments on torture’s constitutionality.

UPDATE: Scalia is also a fan of Jack Bauer.

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Transcript:

BBC: Tell me about the issue of torture, we know that cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited under the 8th amendment. Does that mean if the issue comes up in front of the court, it’s a ‘no-brainer?’

SCALIA: Well, a lot of people think it is, but I find that extraordinary to begin with. To begin with, the constitution refers to cruel and unusual punishment, it is referring to punishment on indefinitely — would certainly be cruel and unusual punishment for a crime. But a court can do that when a witness refuses to answer or commit them to jail until you will answer the question — without any time limit on it, as a means of coercing the witness to answer, as the witness should. And I suppose it’s the same thing about “so-called” torture.

Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to find out where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited under the Constitution? Because smacking someone in the face would violate the 8th amendment in a prison context. You can’t go around smacking people about. Is it obvious that what can’t be done for punishment can’t be done to exact information that is crucial to this society? It’s not at all an easy question, to tell you the truth.

BBC: It’s a question that’s been raised by Alan Derschowitz and other people — this idea of ticking bomb torture. It’s predicated on the basis that you got a plane with nuclear weapons flying toward the White House, you happen to have in your possession — hooray! — the person that has the key information to put everything right, and you stick a needle under his fingernail — you get the answer — and that should be allowed?

SCALIA: And you think it shouldn’t?

BBC: All I’m saying about it, is that it’s a bizarre scenario, because it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have the one person that can give you that information and so if you use that as an excuse to permit torture then perhaps that’s a dangerous thing.

SCALIA: Seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails, smack them in the face. It would be absurd to say that you couldn’t do that. And once you acknowledge that, we’re into a different game. How close does the threat have to be and how severe can an infliction of pain be?

There are no easy answers involved, in either direction, but I certainly know you can’t come in smugly and with great self-satisfaction and say, “Oh, this is torture and therefore it’s no good.” You would not apply that in some real-life situations. It may not be a ticking bomb in Los Angeles, but it may be: “Where is this group that we know is plotting this painful action against the United States? Where are they? What are they currently planning?”

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