For the darkest day of the year, a couple of torture-related items seem appropriate. Firstly, there is this New York Times piece, which argues that senior officials from the Bush administration should be charged with war crimes, for authorizing and enabling torture. The editorial argues that there is no chance that prosecutions will be sought under an Obama administration, but that he ought to clarify the obligation of the United States and its agents to uphold the Geneva Conventions, as well as reverse executive orders that “eroded civil liberties and the rule of law.”
The prospect of high-level American decision-makers being put on trial for authorizing torture is so unlikely that it is a bit difficult to even form an opinion about it. At the same time, it is likely that nobody thirty years ago would have anticipated the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), or International Criminal Court (ICC). There is no clear reason for which high political office should be any impediment to being tried for war crimes, but it is very unclear how any such prosecutions would fare in the United States. It would certainly be seen as a ‘political’ act, and any connections with international law would likely be the targets for special criticism and scorn from some quarters.
The other story worth mentioning is an experiment conducted by Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University. It was a less intense re-creation of Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority. Like Milgram, Burger found that a startling proportion of the population is willing to torture a fellow human being as part of a scientific experiment. This is when the only pressure placed upon the subject of the experiment is the authority of the actor pretending to conduct it. That naturally makes one nervous about what people would be willing to do when they felt an urgent and important issue justified it, as well as when far stronger sanctions could be brought against them if they did not proceed.