Stay the Hand of Vengeance

From Guantánamo to Boston, why Americans have a dangerous tendency to overreact to terrorism.


A few days before Christmas in 1970, a teenager named Louis Taylor was having a good time at a party at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson but quickly snapped into action when a fire broke out in the facility. The young man knocked on doors to alert guests of the situation and, when casualties started to mount, helped put injured people on stretchers. Twenty-eight people were killed that night. But as Steve Kroft recently reported on 60 Minutes, rumors started circulating that Taylor might have been the culprit behind the blaze, and he was arrested and convicted. He spent the next 42 years in prison and was released only a few weeks ago.

There is little evidence, however, that Taylor committed the crime. For one thing, several fires had broken out at the location previously and all had pointed to another suspect, but that information was never presented to the jury. Top fire experts, looking at the case today, say that it’s not even clear that arson was the cause. Taylor confessed only after being questioned all night by eight different police officers and he did not have an attorney or guardian with him, suggesting, as Kroft puts it, that Taylor had been "railroaded." Far from there being enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, even the trial judge said later that he would not have voted to convict. 

How, then, could Taylor have been wrongfully imprisoned? In the aftermath of what turned out to be the worst fire in Arizona’s history, there was a strong and understandable desire to make sense of this tragedy, to find the guilty party, and to bring that person to justice. This desire, however, was not tempered with reason; other, less noble impulses played a role. The original fire investigator decided that Taylor was the one to blame because, as an African American, "…if they get mad at somebody, the first thing they do is use something they’re comfortable with. Fire was one of them." The result was that a man who was probably innocent was denied something that can never be given back to him: more than four decades of freedom.

Two incidents this week prompt us to reflect upon the lessons from Taylor’s story. The first is the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing hunt for the person or persons responsible for this reprehensible act. The second is the publication of Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s op-ed in the New York Times, "Gitmo is Killing Me," which details the vicious treatment that Moqbel, who has not been convicted of or even charged with a crime, is receiving at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. He writes:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

As someone who has had a nasogastric tube placed without anesthesia myself, I can personally attest to the excruciating distress this causes, and in my case, the device was inserted by a physician who was trying to help me get better. I can’t even fathom what it must have been like in Moqbel’s situation. 

"All men [sic] by nature desire to know," writes Aristotle in the opening of his work, Metaphysics, and when we’re faced with evil on the scale of 9/11 or the Boston bombing, what we want to know most of all is, "Who did this and why?" On the heels of these intellectual questions comes a more primal desire: revenge. We want to inflict the worst possible damage on those who would do us harm. The thinking — if you can call it that — goes something like this: "You hurt me. Now I’m going to hurt you even more."

There are several ethical problems with this line of reasoning. As the Pioneer Hotel case illustrates, a hot-blooded response to tragedy may result in punishing someone who had nothing to do with the crime. Meting out justice requires a cold, dispassionate view of the facts, and when you’re filled with rage, it’s virtually impossible to maintain the critical distance you need to see the world as it really is. (For more on the distinction between hot and cool reasoning, see Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon’s Reason in Human Affairs, a collection of papers he gave at Stanford University.)

Another ethical issue that follows from an emotional, reflexive response to injustice is that the punishment we devise might be disproportionate to the crime. Even if Moqbel is lying when he claims that he had nothing to do with 9/11, how are we justified in subjecting him to the horrors he describes? Aren’t the military’s measures to keep him alive in the wake of his hunger strike a violation, at the very least, of the Geneva Conventions, the post-World-War-II protocols that legally prevent all governments from abusing prisoners of war?

The only way to justify the treatment of people like Moqbel is if we declare that what they’ve done — or believe they’ve done — is of a magnitude so atrocious that even international law like the rules specified in the Geneva Conventions simply don’t apply. That is the unapologetic position taken by one of our former vice presidents and recapped in R.J. Cutler’s new documentary, The World According to Dick Cheney. As Cheney puts it in the film:

The basic proposition here is that somebody who conducts a terrorist operation, killing thousands of innocent Americans, they don’t deserve to be treated as a prisoner of war, they don’t deserve the same guarantees and safeguards that would be used for an American citizen going through the normal judicial process.

This is a wartime situation and it does require tough programs and policies if you’re going to be successful. And it [is] more important to be successful than it [is] to be loved.

The problem with Cheney’s position isn’t that our management of detainees at Gitmo makes us unlovable; it’s that any society with a legitimate claim to being a democracy, one that has always prided itself on being committed to moral principles, cannot dispense with simple human decency the way one might discard an old wallet that has outlived its usefulness. We ought to treat everyone, even prisoners, with a modicum of respect and dignity, not for the narcissistic reason that we’ll feel better about ourselves if we do, but because every human being is entitled to this. 

Consider the following principle, upon which our way of life was built:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This edict is a cornerstone of our democracy, but the formulation I’ve just quoted isn’t found in the U.S. Constitution; it’s from the Magna Carta, written — in Latin — in 1215. (Thanks to mebflemin, the Times reader who quoted this in a comment posted online after Moqbel’s op-ed.) In our efforts to find terrorists and bring them to justice, whether the crime at hand is 9/11 or the bombing of the Boston Marathon, it’s worth taking a step back, and perhaps a collective deep breath too, to consider how righteous fury can sometimes cloud our ability to see and do what’s right.

If we’re unwilling or unable to rethink our domestic and foreign policy regarding suspected terrorists, we’ll undermine the very goal
of our extreme counterterrorism measures. That’s the conclusion of the Constitution Project, which on Tuesday issued a nearly 600-page review of America’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs. These practices, the nonpartisan, independent legal research group concluded, have "damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive."

It’s of the greatest importance for a government to protect the lives of its citizens. But it’s also crucial to uphold the ideals upon which that government rests. Good governments do both.

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