My contribution to this symposium seeks to accomplish two things. First, I want to engage in a dialogue with Professors Levinson and Kreimer about the problems of defining torture and the law’s response to torture. My contentions are that, contrary to Professor Levinson’s suggestion, we should not seek to limit the category “torture,” and that, contrary to Professor Kreimer’s argument, law in fact fails to regulate torture. More precisely, I argue that law provides less of a constraint on torture, properly defined, than most people probably assume. Second, I want to use that dialogue as the launching point for a more open-ended exploration of torture and the more general problem of state violence. To that end, the last section of this essay considers with broad strokes some of the possible reasons for law’s failure to regulate torture adequately.
Discussions about torture often start with this hypothetical: Imagine that there is a terrorist in the middle of Manhattan who has planted a nuclear bomb set to go off within hours. You capture him and are faced with a moral dilemma. Do you torture him to get the information that will allow you to defuse the bomb, thereby saving the lives of millions of people? Or do you stand on principle and sacrifice multitudes?
Two innovative federal crimes, 18 U.S.C. §2339A and §2339B, have been frequently charged in prosecutions since September 11, 2001, becoming key elements in the government’s anti-terrorism efforts. Section 2339A makes it a federal crime knowingly to provide material support or resources in preparation for or in carrying out specified crimes of terrorism. Section 2339B prohibits knowingly providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. These statutes bear some resemblance to criminal liability for complicity, but they are being used like a new kind of conspiracy charge, the familiar “prosecutor’s darling.” Unlike conspiracy, they are framed with a mens rea of knowledge rather than of purpose, and because they are substantive offenses, they can be combined with traditional conspiracy charges. These provisions can be used to impose punishment for conduct remote from the commission of criminal harms, often conduct involving minimal and outwardly non-criminal acts.
In two cases decided on June 28, 2004, the Supreme Court emphatically upheld the rule of law and the right of those being detained as part of the war on terrorism to have access to the courts. In Rasul v. Bush, the Court held that those being detained in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba are entitled to have a habeas corpus petition heard in federal court. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Justices declared, by an 8-to-1 margin, that an American citizen apprehended in a foreign country and held as an enemy combatant must be accorded due process, including a meaningful factual hearing on his status.
Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican national, was kidnapped in Mexico and brought to the United States at the behest of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents for allegedly assisting in the torture and murder of a DEA agent in Mexico. He challenged the jurisdiction of US courts to try him, arguing that his illegal seizure barred the trial. The Supreme Court rejected that contention, holding that “the power of a court to try a person for a crime is not impaired by the fact that he has been brought within the court’s jurisdiction by reason of a ‘forcible abduction.’” This writer was one of the few who supported the Supreme Court’s decision sustaining jurisdiction, arguing that it was consistent both with international law and with the Fourth Amendment.