Opinion » Viewpoint

A Modest Proposal

Maybe Cheney is right about torture; let's try it out on street criminals.



What have we learned from the now-defunct "war on terror" that we could apply to our de facto war on crime? (Note: We have "wars" on terror and on drugs, both of which have been ineffectual, but no "war on crime," an obvious admission of the metaphor's futility.)

According to former Vice President Dick Cheney, some of his adminstration's tactics against terror actually worked — primary among them, torture. He's told us that the "harsh interrogation tactics" our country used on terrorists have actually "kept us safe," since we haven't been attacked since 2001.

Never mind that many of our allies have been attacked by terrorists since then or that worldwide terrorism has actually increased during that same time. If we've learned anything about the Bush/Cheney doctrine, it's that the only thing that really matters is what happens in this country. And, since I always believe what the Dick says (on WMD's, the "well-established" connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, etc.), I have no reason to disbelieve him this time, do I?

So, here's my "modest proposal" (in honor of Jonathan Swift's tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the poor and hungry of early-18th-century Ireland eat their own children as a way of alleviating their plight): Let's start torturing prisoners in our domestic jails and prisons.

Are you listening, Chief Godwin and District Attorney Gibbons? It's obvious that your "Gun crime is jail time" and "Blue Crush" slogans haven't been working, at least not well enough. Criminals are still committing crimes in Memphis with such frequency that it has won us the dubious distinction of being the second-most "miserable" city in the country, according to a recent Forbes magazine survey.

The solution is obvious, isn't it? Instead of putting "Gun crime is jail time" on billboards, the campaign against crime needs to say, "Gun crime is torture time." Hey, if it's worked for deterring terrorists from attacking the U.S., as the former vice president says it has, it's got to work for local thugs as well, don't you think? A billboard with a picture of jailers at 201 Poplar administering waterboarding to a prisoner would go a long way toward convincing would-be criminals on the outside that the Shelby County Jail is the last place on earth they want to be.

Of course, criminals never think they're going to be caught, which is why traditional punishments, including capital punishment, aren't nearly the deterrents criminologists wish they were, but maybe if the treatment were more heinous ... After all, when you grab 'em by the balls (or nearly drown 'em), their hearts and minds are sure to follow, right?

Torture might work where other, more conventional methods of punishment don't, if for no other reason than it will convince the bad guys we're willing to play by their rules, rather than by the rules of a civilized society. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If we can convince criminals that they're at risk of suffering excruciating pain for committing crimes, who knows what effect it might have?

So what if the people we torture in our jails are just suspects (like the "detainees" we worked over at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib)? We don't arrest or "detain" people unless they're guilty, right? Once we extract confessions from them in this time-honored way, we'll sweep away this "presumption of innocence" nonsense and eliminate the necessity of wasting time and money on "due process."

And I'm sure we can convince local legal authorities to give jailers who inflict torture on prisoners the same kind of immunity from prosecution our president was willing to give the CIA agents who tortured detainees.

Now I know some of the more squeamish readers out there might have a problem with this truly modest proposal. The ACLU probably won't like it either — left-wingers that they are — and they might even sue to prevent torture as a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But they'd be wrong.

No less an authority than Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, in an interview broadcast on CBS's 60 Minutes a few months ago, said that since torture isn't, technically speaking, punishment, it cannot, by definition, be cruel and unusual.

I kid you not; that's what he actually said. Now, anything that Scalia and Cheney say is good enough for me. So let the torture begin!

Would I pull your leg?

Marty Aussenberg, a local attorney, writes the "Gadfly" column for memphisflyer.com.

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