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A Question for Leonard Peikoff
State Torture

On his website Leonard Peikoff calls himself  “the world’s foremost authority on Ayn Rand’s philosophy”  and solicits your philosophical questions, a select number of which he will answer via  podcast – an audio file you can play any time. Past subjects have included metaphysics, consciousness, career, politics. We trust he will have time for government institutionalized torture.

Mr. Peikoff was one of the first American intellectuals to promote state-sanctioned torture, perhaps the first. [1]  Other writers at the Ayn Rand Institute continue in the same vein: [2]

“Why does it [the administration] fear torturing prisoners of war, if that could save American lives?”

“If ... torture is an effective method of extracting information that would save American lives, we [or rather U.S. government agents] should ... torture prisoners as necessary.”

“If torture works, torture him,  if  uh  if torture doesn’t work then don’t torture him.”  (From a radio interview.  Perhaps the “uh” hid the mental question:  how does the thug undo the torture after finding out it didn’t work?)

“If ... torturing any terrorist captive [alleged and proven alike?] can be expected [by a U.S. agent] to provide information that will prevent the murder of Americans, we [or rather U.S. government agents] are morally obligated to do it.”
They have no sense of the absurdity of all this, with its  “if”  and  “we”  and  “works.”  Even if one were to accept the moral premises of thugs, U.S. agents torture a captive regardless of any consideration about it  “working.”  To a torturer, torture – like an astrological prediction – always works.

And in spite of what ARI writers insinuate, the U.S. gives little consideration – at times none at all – to the guilt or innocence of those chosen for torture.

ARI writers have nothing to say about steps of undisguised tyranny such as the Real ID Act,  the Military Commissions Act,  the Martial Law Act,  the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act,  etc. like a trap slowly being assembled. They ignore government whistleblowers trying to expose the compromising of America to foreign interests. But when it comes to promoting thugs in the name of  “fighting our enemies,”  you can count on them to make the effort.

January 2008 was a good time to ask Mr. Peikoff a question about this because the next few weeks his podcasts originated from the Ayn Rand Institute offices in Irvine, California;  the ARI staff sat in on the recordings and occasionally contributed to them.

Taking advantage of Mr. Peikoff’s offer I emailed him a question, in brief:  “What’s your position on state torture?”  along with scraps of argument supporting my own position against it. Judging from ARI articles any appeal to psychology and decency would have been futile, so I focused on the pragmatic:  how does state torture defend a civilized country as a civilized country, and even more crudely, does it even work in the short term?

Frankly my own first reaction to such questions is:  even to discuss this is obscene, even to debate it is to give in.

On further reflection, the sophistries of ARI writers and their ilk must be exposed, at least by pointing to them.  Here is my letter, dated January 12, 2008  (footnotes added).

Dr. Peikoff, [3]

Several Objectivists at the Ayn Rand Institute have said (paraphrasing):
If torturing a man will help defend American troops, then our government ought to torture him.
They make their point in  IF-THEN  form. The assumption,  the IF,  is:  Government torture helps defend American troops.  Yet many professional interrogators emphatically say:  No, torture doesn’t work.  For example James H. Harper, former Lieutenant Colonel, Chief, MI (Military Intelligence) Branch, U.S. Total Army Personnel Command; and Daniel Coleman, former FBI agent.

Alleged examples of torture that worked are found on examination to be false   (such as Abu Zubaida, who had been cooperating without torture and whose subsequent torture yielded nothing of further value – under it he confessed to everything but the kitchen sink)  or from an unreliable source  (such as a Third World government, or the Bush administration). [4]

Among intellectuals it’s hard to find any defenders of state-sanctioned torture outside of Neoconservatives, Alan Dershowitz  (I repeat myself) – and the Ayn Rand Institute.

Even if we were to grant that under torture certain men, in real cases, had provided information later found reliable – I assume you believe that information obtained under torture is not by itself reliable – you still would need to show that the information could not have been obtained just as well, even setting aside decency, without torture.

My question – and it’s a philosophical question, relevant today and for all time – is:
Should the state employ agents who torture men ?
The answer does not begin with  IF  per above. And please, no unreal ticking bomb “men in a lifeboat” made-up examples designed to elicit a preconceived answer. I seek an answer based on induction from the real world:  history, examples, facts,  not daydreams or television shows.  Life and reason, not tautology.

When has torture as a legitimate method of inquiry ever helped a free country  as a free country ?

Though philosophy deals in generalities and with situations which could happen though perhaps only rarely, that doesn’t mean we can make up situations out of thin air, arbitrarily. As someone once ironically remarked on this subject:  “Suppose you had to kill everyone on earth so you could survive ... .”  This is no way to do philosophy.

Especially when some politico like Yoo, Gonzales, or Mukasey might use your answer to justify Khiam Prison.

Include in your answer, if you would, any difference between the levels of “state” – that is, torture performed by local city cops, by county police, state troopers, and federal agents. If one is beneficial, why not the others?

During the American Revolutionary War George Washington forbade his men to torture British prisoners and threatened court-martial and death to anyone who disobeyed. [5]

My question of course is prompted by our government’s conduct today. By now countless men – hundreds, some totally innocent – have been swept up and tortured at U.S. facilities or rendered  (as in “extraordinary rendition”)  to Third World countries to be tortured at U.S. behest and under its supervision. Though water-boarding – much in the news – is something out of Medieval times, U.S. torture goes far beyond that.  The Mafia has nothing on what the U.S. is doing today.

I look forward to hearing your answer via podcast on your website.

Since this is part of the broader question of what America is and how to defend it, I want to say that any real defense of America must begin with – first and foremost – ending the criminal corruption in our government revealed by such whistleblowers as   Rodney Stich,  Catherine Austin Fitts,  Thomas Drake  and many others. [6]

Sincerely yours,
. . . . .  . . .  . . . . . . . . . .

While Mr. Peikoff considered this letter I ventured a guess as to how he might respond:

George Washington lived over two centuries ago. Our situation today is unprecedented. Iranian savages who hate us for being civilized will design and build a nuclear bomb in only a few months and, bent on self-destruction (Iran a known fixed location), nuke New York. These savages are so powerful, so resourceful, we must become savages ourselves.

Don’t tie my hands by rejecting ARI’s conditionals. If torture works, then by God torture works.  John Dewey ... I mean ... uh ... can we restart the recording?

Our situation is desperate. That’s why we at ARI did not protest  the Military Commissions Act,  the Patriot Act, the Martial Law Act,  the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act  and so forth.  Faced as we are with Islamics ten feet tall, now is no time to be squeamish.

We can always trust our government. Don’t talk to me of Rodney Stich, Thomas Drake and so on, whoever they are.
A bit of satirical ventriloquism there.

After five months Mr. Peikoff had not replied. He did however have time to answer  “When you refer to a dictionary for word definitions, which published edition of a dictionary do you rely on?”  and others equally shallow. He answered some questions having depth but most of them still were far less important than the question of state torture.

Finally Mr. Peikoff replied to a similar question asked by someone else, and committed all the fallacies warned about here.  See  Leonard Peikoff on Torture.



1  On Savage Nation, Michael Savage’s radio show,  October 4, 2001.  Thus Mr. Peikoff beat Alan Dershowitz  (November 8, 2001  Los Angeles Times)  by a full month.

Mr. Peikoff’s website once linked to a recording of the Savage Nation broadcast. Besides advocating torture he said 9-11 was like Pearl Harbor, an analogy he later elaborated on at length in his speech  “America versus Americans”  of April 6, 2003. He excoriated Americans for not living up to the reaction of an earlier generation.

Using Pearl Harbor in this manner was a volte-face from his position in  The Ominous Parallels  written in his Ayn Rand days  (see footnote 20, second paragraph, of  Relentless Propaganda: Redux for Iran  on this website). There he had said in so many words that Pearl Harbor was a fraud.

2  Examples of ARI writers advocating state torture, quoted in the main text respectively:
• Yaron Brook on the Myles Spencer radio show  “Should the U.S. Invade Iraq Without U.N. Approval”  March 6, 2003.
• ARI Press Release for Yaron Brook’s talk  “The Morality of War”  September 9, 2004 (Press Release, Sept. 7, 2004), part of the Ayn Rand Institute Lecture Series 2004.
• Yaron Brook and Alex Esptein in their article  “ ‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense”  The Objective Standard, Spring 2006  “based on a lecture, ‘The Morality of War,’ delivered by Yaron Brook at numerous venues across the country including the 2004 Objectivist Summer Conference.”
• Harry Binswagner in his article  “Guantanamo and the Geneva Convention”  Capitalism Magazine, October 4, 2006.

Further commentary on ARI’s promotion of government institutionalized torture can be found at  Torture  on this website, and at our articles listed in  Torture and Intrinsicism.

3  About the letter’s salutation:  Mr. Peikoff is not a physician. ARI writers call themselves doctor if they have a Ph.D.  I obliged.

4  Regarding Abu Zubaida (also spelled Zubayda or Zubaydah) see:  “FBI, CIA Debate Significance of Terror Suspect”  by Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus, Washington Post  18 December 2007
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/17/AR2007121702151_pf.html
See also  “My Tortured Decision”  by Ali Soufan, New York Times  22 April 2009
www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/opinion/23soufan.html

The U.S. government eventually acknowledged that he had no role in 9-11.  See  “US Recants Claims on ‘High-Value’ Detainee Abu Zubaydah”  by Jason Leopold,  30 March 2010
www.truthout.org/government-quietly-recants-bush-era-claims-about-%22high-value%22-detainee-zubdaydah58151
and  “Tortured for Nothing”  by Andy Worthington  5 April 2010
www.fff.org/comment/com1004b.asp

A telling example concerning just the threat of state torture is the case of Abdallah Higazy, as told in  “The FBI’s Right to Threaten Torture”  by James Bovard.  For more about state torture at work see the  “Torture”  section of this website’s  Links  page.

5  “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner] ... I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause … for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” – George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775.  For another quote see  Torture  on this website.

6  About  Rodney Stich,  Catherine Austin Fitts,  Thomas Drake – see the  Links  page of this website.