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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
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Torture Terrorists?

“Time to Torture” was the headline of an article by Jonathan Alter in the November 5 issue of Newsweek.

Alter wrote that:

“Even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.”

Under certain circumstances, in other words, it is o.k. to use torture to extract information from prisoners, according to Alter.

Consider one such circumstance. You have arrested a man who belongs to a terrorist organization. You know he has information which will enable you to prevent his organization from carrying out a terrorist attack. Torture is the only way you can force him to reveal that information in time to save thousands of people from being killed. Who would argue that in this case torture is unjustifiable?

Consider another circumstance. You are arrested. The authorities mistakenly believe you are the terrorist described above. They torture you. Have they committed a crime for which they should be held accountable in a court of law?

Consider a third situation. The United States fails to allow the United Nations to take the lead in orchestrating the response to the terrorist attacks? Has it thereby undermined efforts to establish an international order in which laws govern the behavior of nations as well as individuals?

These are the kinds of questions students would address in a Human Rights Program. Students in a Human Rights Program, for example, would learn about national and international laws governing the treatment of prisoners including prisoners of war and the rationale that underlies those laws. Their training would lead them to note, therefore, that Alter’s Newsweek article makes no mention of the eighth amendment of the U.S. constitution which outlaws cruel and “unusual punishments” or article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which prohibits anyone from being “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” And it would enable them to explain, furthermore, why lawmakers conversant with the argument Alter makes determined that such laws were a necessary component of a just world order.

But though they are rapidly being established in universities around the world there is still no Human Rights Program at UMass Boston. That is why students, faculty, and staff formed the University of Massachusetts Boston Human Rights Working Group (UMBHRWG). Like their colleagues elsewhere, they recognize demand for human rights experts to help fashion rules for the world community to live by is increasing pari passu with the pace of globalization.

The immediate goals of the UMBHRWG are twofold. First it hopes to broaden awareness and support on campus for its proposal to establish a human rights center. The center would oversee a human rights program in which students could major or minor in human rights or get a degree in another field with a human rights emphasis. Already over 40 faculty members and many students and staff have endorsed the proposal.

Second, the UMBHRWG is moving ahead with plans for a December 12 human rights forum on Colombia. Noam Chomsky, the famed writer and human rights activist and Germán Plata Díaz, a labor leader from a war torn zone in Colombia will be the featured speakers.

People who want to join the UMBHRWG or be put on its mailing list should contact [email protected] or call Clark Taylor 617-287-7364.

The next meeting of the UMBHRWG is Friday, November 16 from 12-2PM in Wheatley 141. All who are interested are encouraged to attend.