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Another Scheer distortion

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2001 — Robert Scheer is at it again. In his November 20 column for the Los Angeles Times, republished on his Web site, the left-liberal pundit suggests — without quite having the guts to make a flat assertion — that Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz favors the use of torture in questioning suspected terrorism suspects.

Scheer writes that Dershowitz "assures us that the Constitution does not prohibit 'torture' and argues that it be kept within the legal system: 'If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law. Judges should have to issue a 'torture warrant' in each case."

Now, this is true as far as it goes — which, for Scheer, represents progress, since the last time I checked in on him he was erroneously asserting that the Bush administration had made a $43 million gift to the Taliban (see "Media," This Just In, September 28).

But Dershowitz has made it plain that he does not favor torture. As he explained to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter several weeks ago, "I’m not in favor of torture, but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval." Dershowitz also delineated his views at much greater length in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece on November 8 — the same piece that Scheer appears to have selectively quoted from. Here is a crucial excerpt that Scheer left out:

"[T]he argument for allowing torture as an approved technique, even in a narrowly specified range of cases, is very troubling.

"We know from experience that law enforcement personnel who are given limited authority to torture will expand its use. The cases that have generated the current debate over torture illustrate this problem. And, concerning the arrests made following the Sept. 11 attacks, there is no reason to believe that the detainees know about specific future terrorist targets. Yet there have been calls to torture these detainees.

"I have no doubt that if an actual ticking bomb situation were to arise, our law enforcement authorities would torture. The real debate is whether such torture should take place outside our legal system or within it. The answer to this seems clear: If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law."

Thus, Dershowitz takes essentially the same position as his fellow civil libertarian (and Phoenix contributor) Harvey Silverglate, the difference being that Silverglate would prefer that torture in the sort of rare "ticking bomb" situations Dershowitz mentions continue to take place outside the legal system (see "Taking Liberties," News and Features, November 22). But you’d never know it from reading Scheer.

Unfortunately, Scheer’s intellectual dishonesty is not restricted to the LA Times, since this particular column was also picked up by and the lefty Web site

Dershowitz doesn’t deserve to be let completely off the hook. Since September 11, he’s been entirely too quick to talk about measures that would violate our civil liberties. (Witness his sort-of endorsement of national identification cards, which he laid out in an op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal.) On the torture issue, he has failed to be as explicitly clear as he might — which is why the Nation’s twin horsemen of the left, Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn, have both accused him of endorsing torture as a means of extracting information. A "rich thug’s liberal loophole artist," sneers Hitchens in describing Dershowitz.

But Dershowitz deserves to be judged by his words and his arguments, not by some hostile witness’s representation of them. In this regard, Scheer is the worst offender, since his selective quotations show that he had Dershowitz’s entire brief laid out in front of him — yet chose to leave out anything that detracted from his general thesis of "Alan Dershowitz advocates torture."

Agree? Disagree? Respond to "Today's Jolt" in the Phoenix Forum.

Issue Date: November 26, 2001

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