<< ARI Watch

Leonard Peikoff on Torture

( this continues  A Question for Leonard Peikoff )

Someone eventually asked Mr. Peikoff about torture in a manner acceptable to him, apparently without the elaboration and real-world constraints prefaced to our own question. He answered June 2, 2008 [1]  and in the process committed every fallacy we had warned against.

Question:  “When if ever is it moral for a government to torture its enemies?”
Mr. Peikoff’s answer:  It is moral for a “proper government” to use torture against “real enemies violating rights.” Thus one might truly apply the adjective “proper” to a government that tortures. According to Mr. Peikoff torture is sometimes necessary in order to “advance the war for freedom.” He does not say what war that is or ever was, indeed he gives no historical examples of (what we might call) “proper torture” at all. Regarding “real enemies” he assumes as part of “proper” that the (proper) government will use a valid procedure to determine that the man to be tortured is a real enemy.

Mr. Peikoff next defines torture, defines it away really, by saying there is no essential difference between torture and other uses of physical force. Torture differs from, say, holding a man prisoner, only in degree, it is no different in kind. [2]  The operative word in the following quote is “simply”:  “torture is simply the extension of physical force,” of “taking it to the point of making the individual’s own body his enemy.”

He goes on to say that asking if torture is moral is the wrong question, the correct question is “not the morality but the practicality.” In other words, as far as eliciting information, does government institutionalized torture work? He quietly drops the context he started with, of working for a civilized country. The question then becomes – we observe – a pragmatic question that a thug would ask.

Mr. Peikoff’s reply to the question is that torture performed by government agents might elicit valuable information, and he argues using precisely the sort of fantastic example warned against in A Question for Leonard Peikoff. He says (emphasis his):  “there are occasional situations where you  [that is, government agents – proponents of police-torture frequently confuse themselves with the police]  have intelligence that a bomb will be exploded ... .”  His emphasis of “will” indicates the selective knowledge of government agents who are sure of one thing but not its first cousin. Somehow they found out the what, when, and who, yet not the where. He gives no examples of the “occasional situations” he pretends to know actually happened, and of course he could not because they are found only in fiction such as unreal television shows. [3]

Speaking of practical, in  Links: Government Institutionalized Torture  on this website you can see what Mr. Peikoff’s sophistries entail in the real world. As far as torture is concerned Mr. Peikoff voices no objection to anything any branch or agency of the U.S. government has ever done.

In concluding his reply Mr. Peikoff tries to soften his preceding remarks by saying that torture, “it’s not a hopeful way, it’s not a general way” for government agents to acquire information. As an afterthought he throws a sop to civilization:  “of course if it’s done out of sadism then it’s completely corrupt.”  Yet still we should not protest if it is, as he implies in his answer to the next question in this podcast:

“If it is moral to use torture at all, how could you limit the government to only using this power in an emergency situation?”
Mr. Peikoff answers that you cannot, and that is no problem. His full reply is given below (emphasis his), and as you read keep in mind that George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld at the time, Barack Obama and Robert Gates now, and unknown men who will replace them in the future are the ones who run U.S. wars. Again, how could government torturers be limited:
“Well, the answer to that is that civilians do not run wars. This is a question of military tactics that is outside the province of the ordinary citizen to consider. These officers have been trained, they’ve passed various tests. If you suspect that one of them is bad then you speak up at home, but you cannot expect to follow him around or have an agency follow him around and second guess him. There may be a court system to oversee in general but tactics are not the province of civilians.”
We interrupt.  Can you imagine a more statist, authority-worshipping mentality?  “These officers have been trained, they’ve passed various tests” – unlike us ordinary citizens who ignorantly balk at American empire and Torture USA.

Mr. Peikoff continues, saying that the training and tests don’t matter anyway:

“Moreover if there were generals that wanted to torture senselessly, you’re not gonna stop them, no matter how many courts there are. How many zillion buildings are hidden away that they can torture in. There’s no point putting down a rule that you can’t enforce and find out what’s going on. You know John Allison’s wonderful line, ‘You have to inspect what you expect.’ And if you have no access there’s no use laying down rules.”
That would be John Allison, former CEO of BB&T, a generous financial supporter of ARI, and once on its board of directors.  At the end of BB&T’s Annual Review 2006  Mr. Allison writes that BB&T has been a success because  “we carefully manage and inspect the behaviors that we expect from our people.”  One wonders if he appreciates the applicability of his observation to torturers as well as bank tellers.

In the mind of an ARI man Mr. Allison’s aphorism means that government institutionalized torture might as well be unrestrained.

Mr. Peikoff winds down by saying that, anyway (again as if to soften his point), “torture is not a primary or major issue in a war. It’s a minor tactic.” In other words, the most gruesome aspect of a totalitarian state is small beer, there are more important things to worry about. As an aside Mr. Peikoff obliquely refers to real-world torture: “Counter to what all the newspapers are saying.” Thus he would have his remarks apply to the actual torture in the news, examples of which can be found in the torture section of this website’s Links page.

Mr. Peikoff’s statement about “issue in a war” insinuates that torture is to be used only in wars, necessarily by the federal (as opposed to a local) government, yet nothing in his preceding argument imposes such restrictions.

Mr. Peikoff concludes his answer by repeating the contention he began with, that the only question about torture is: does it work?  As we have seen his answer is:  Yes, and in the context of America.  To echo the title of Bill Kauffman’s book on American empire, this  Ain’t My America.

Without missing a beat Mr. Peikoff goes on to the next question, how does one retrain oneself to “a conceptual principled way of thinking” after college !

The podcast ends with Mr. Peikoff’s usual pre-recorded message:  “If you want to know more about Ayn Rand’s philosophy I invite you to ask me a question. ...”  Well then, here is another:  How is it that a philosophy that anchors thought to the objective world has left so many dead brains in its wake?

But the question is a loaded one. It is not Ayn Rand’s philosophy that has done the killing, not even its perversion that has done it. These people, inside, were dead already. They know a good thing when they see it though: Objectivist boilerplate makes an alluring cover.

That ticking bomb story is perversely ironic given that since the atom bomb’s invention one administration after the other, Democrat or Republican doesn’t matter, has worked to get an atom bomb exploded in an American metropolis.  See  Links: Arming Our Enemies  on this website. Indeed such a disaster could happen. A precondition for preventing it is obvious, stop doing two things: (1) arming our enemies and (2) entering foreign wars, in particular Israel’s wars. In a word, stop mucking about in foreign lands. [4]  After a century of such mucking, stopping now will have much less effect than it would have had say sixty years ago. For sure, though, trying to bring to life crazy torture fantasies will not protect us.



1  Podcast #17, starting 5:42 minutes into the recording.  Note that Mr. Peikoff’s podcasts are not off-the-cuff Q&A.  He reads the questions ahead of time, thinks about them, records his answers, then puts the recording on his website. Clearly they represent his considered positions. (In our transcription uhs and ums have been removed, along with two verbal slips: an extraneous “what” before “John Allison” and a stutter of “if you” soon after.)

2  The prisoner example is ours not Mr. Peikoff’s, who speaks on this point only in generalities.

3  One such television show is the series 24, featuring the fictional federal agent Jack Bauer. Here is what its producer Joel Surnow once said about it:  “The military loves our show. ... People in the Administration love [it] too.”  ( Quoted in “Whatever It Takes: The politics of the man behind ‘24’ ” by Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, 19 February 2007.
www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/02/19/070219fa_fact_mayer )

The late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia was also among those who loved 24. He once grasped at its plots to justify Torture USA. The following is from a Globe and Mail article as quoted in “Scalia and Torture” by Andrew Sullivan, 19 June 2007 (we leave off our external quote marks):
“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke ...

“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.

“So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.”
andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2007/06/scalia_and_tort.html

Mr. Scalia takes a screenwriter’s fantasizing as fact, as evidence. He fails to understand that the television show is fiction, daydreams of Joel Surnow, Howard Gordon, Michael Loceff and other writers – bad fiction that does not abstract from reality.

Ayn Rand once reviewed Mickey Spillane’s thriller Day of the Guns (“Book Report”  The Objectivist Newsletter  October 1964) and castigated the author for presenting as a hero the character Tiger Man, a government agent (G-man in the parlance of those days) whose job was to commit extrajudicial murders in a good cause, very like Jack Bauer and his extrajudicial tortures.

Scalia isn’t the only politico enthralled by 24. The following is from the The New Yorker article referenced above (we leave off our external quote marks):
Last March [2006], Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife ... joined Surnow [the show’s producer] and Howard Gordon [its lead writer] for a private dinner at Rush Limbaugh’s Florida home. The gathering inspired [Thomas’s wife] – who works at the Heritage Foundation ... – to organize a panel discussion on “24.” [The symposium, held in June and moderated by Limbaugh,] was entitled “ ‘24’ and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who participated in the discussion [and is “a devoted viewer of ‘24’ ”], praised the show’s depiction of the war on terrorism ... “Frankly, it reflects real life.”  Chertoff ... subsequently began an e-mail correspondence with Gordon, and the two have since socialized in Los Angeles.  “It’s been very heady,” Gordon said of Washington’s enthusiasm for the show.

The same day as the Heritage Foundation event, a private luncheon was held in the Wardrobe Room of the White House for Surnow and several others from the show. ... Among the attendees were Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff; Tony Snow, the White House spokesman; ... and Lynn Cheney, the Vice-President’s wife, who, Surnow said, is “an extreme ‘24’ fan.” After the meal, Surnow recalled, he and his colleagues spent more than an hour visiting with Rove in his office.
Chertoff, by the way, became a war profiteer, selling full-body scanners first used for a time in American airports.
... many prominent conservatives speak of “24” as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s “torture memo” – which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment [a euphemism] of detainees – invokes the show in his book “War by Other Means.”
In his book Yoo retails the same ticking bomb story as Mr. Peikoff.

4  “Mucking about” is used advisedly. For the post-WWII period see the following sections on this website’s Links page:  IranAfghanistanIraqLibyaSyria,  and  Other Foreign Interventions (especially “Uzbekistan: The Banality of Evil”).