Archive for May, 2009

The Hoover Institution’s strange idea of torture

May 31, 2009

About a month ago, I watched the Hoover Institution’s Marc Thiessen defend the practice of waterboarding on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. The moderator of the program asked Thiessen what he thought of Christopher Hitchens and his decision to undergo the “enhanced” technique himself in the summer of 2008.

For background information, Hitchens wrote a column on his experience for Vanity Fair in which he declared “…if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Thiessen stated that he did not agree with Hitchens that waterboarding was torture. Interestingly, Thiessen held that the fact that Hitchens underwent waterboarding voluntarily proved that it was not torture. In his own words:

“He [Hitchens] underwent waterboarding to see what it feels like, to prove that it was torture. In so doing, he proved it was not torture. A common sense definition of torture is, if you’re willing to try it to see what it feels like, it’s not torture. If I said to Christopher Hitchens, “I’m going to pull your teeth out with a pliers to see what it feels like, would you try it?” He wouldn’t try it.

This struck me as a particularly odd, and quite frankly bad argument to make for why waterboarding isn’t torture. Thiessen seems to believe that the only objectionable aspect of waterboarding, or any other torture technique, is the level of physical pain inflicted on the victim. No one would volunteer to have their teeth pulled out because it’s far too painful, whereas being waterboarded is seen as a comparatively painless activity to the point where someone is willing to undergo it just for writing material.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it ignores the key differences between Hitchens’s experience and the experience of an actual detainee. Those are: 1) A real detainee does not consent to be waterboarded; 2) A real detainee has no knowledge of the limitations his captors operate under and thus has no assurance he will not drown from the procedure; 3) A real detainee has no power to stop the procedure at any time, a power that Hitchens had when he consented to be waterboarded.

If you think these are irrelevant differences, consider the difference between consensual and nonconsensual sex. Surely Mr. Thiessen would not argue that rape cannot be called torture because we can find people willing to have intercourse. That is because what makes rape wrong is not principally the physical pain but the psychological pain, which can persist for years, resulting from the coercive nature of the act and the loss of personal autonomy, neither of which are felt by those who consent to sex.

And there is good evidence that waterboarding produces long-term psychological pain similar to rape. Dr. Allen Keller of the Bellevue/NYU Program for the Survivors of Torture testified to the U.S. Senate in 2007, stating that “Long term effects [of waterboarding] include panic attacks, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. I remind you of the patient I described earlier who would panic and gasp for breath whenever it rained even years after his abuse.”


Why Atheists should be Libertarians

May 21, 2009

Atheists and other supporters of evolution are understandably irritated that creationists want to have their ideas taught in science classes in public schools. The irritation is understandable because creationism cannot be science by definition because science is concerned with examining evidence obtained in the natural world, not the supernatural, which is a necessary ingredient in any creationist theory.

What is less understandable is why (some) atheists find it necessary to require the teaching of evolution – even in private schools – as was the case in the province of Quebec in 2007:

The story indicates that a Mennonite school in Quebec was told to comply with the provincial curriculum, which included sections on evolution and homosexuality that the school found objectionable. I don’t know what laws private schools or homeschoolers are under in the state of Iowa or anywhere else in the US, but apparently in Quebec all institions of education, public and private, must abide by the same curriculum.

The reason I bring up this story is because it occurs to me that many atheists would side with the state on this matter and require the Mennonites to teach the state-approved material, on the grounds that the children need to learn the things the state wants to teach them. My argument is that if what you want is for more people to accept evolution as fact or be more tolerant of homosexuals, which I think is what most atheists want, then these kinds of laws are in fact counterproductive to that end.

My logic is this: There will be a greater backlash against evolution or whatever it is you’re promoting if the people you’re trying to reach feel that it’s being forced upon them, which in this case it clearly is. Thoughtful Christians who may otherwise see the logic of evolution and adjust their religious views accordingly will be turned off by the tactics of evolutionists who evidently think the only way Christians will ever accept the theory is through coercion.

Additionally, the fact that the teaching of evolution is mandated will shift the debate away from the supporting science and to something altogether different such as freedom of conscience or freedom of choice, which the creationists can now rightly argue they do not have.

The solution to the problem then is to allow theists to teach their children whatever they want to. If it really is the case that evolution provides us with a better understanding of the world than does creationism, as I believe, then the theists will eventually reach this conclusion as well if they want their children to succeed in scientific endeavors where a knowledge of evolution is essential.

Therefore, atheists should support greater educational freedom on the grounds that it will make evolution more palatable to theists than through government mandate. Notice that it makes sense for atheists to adopt this position even if they care not at all about individual liberty.