On 9/11 Anniversary, The Case Against Torture : The Two-Way Charles and Gregory Fried, father and son, the former a Reagan solicitor general, the latter, a philosophy professor, argue against torture in their new book, saying it is never permissible. But they differ on whether officials should be prosecuted.
NPR logo On 9/11 Anniversary, The Case Against Torture

On 9/11 Anniversary, The Case Against Torture

Torture is never permissible.

That's the absolutist position held by former Reagan Administration solicitor general Charles Fried, a Harvard Law Professor, and his son Gregory Fried, a philosophy professor at Suffolk University.

On the eve of the ninth anniversary of 9/11, an event that led eventually to terms like rendition and waterboarding being introduced to the American public, the elder and younger Frieds, Republican and independent, respectively, discussed their main reasons for opposing torture with Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered.

Their argument against torture is contained in their new book "Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror."

A fundamental basis for their opposition to torture is their belief that nothing can morally justify its use, not even the well-worn hypothetical need to learn the location of the ticking, massively destructive bomb hidden in a city.

They also make a distinction between distasteful actions by a vigilant government, arguing that not all are equal. While torture is out of the question, invasive surveillance is not necessarily.

Charles Fried explained:

"Decent civilized human beings will not, under any circumstances, torture or order torture.

The Constitution itself says searches, which is what eavesdropping, snooping is, are only wrong if they're unreasonable or if they don't have a warrant.

Well, that immediately shows there's a difference because you can have reasonable snooping. You can have snooping pursuant to a warrant. I don't care what kind of a warrant you have, you can't torture. And there's no such thing as reasonable torture."

Gregory Fried added:

".. I think it's essential for and to our identity as a nation that we hold to this absolute among others, that torture is one of the things that a democratic republic must not do in order to retain its character."

The younger Fried also argued, and his father agreed, that if one accepts torture as legitimate, where does it end?

GREGORY FRIED: "The consequences of that argument are, if you believe that dunking someone's head under the water will work in one case, but it won't in another, what other calculations are admissable?

"John Yoo has argued that the president has the authority to crush the testicles of a prisoner's child in order to coerce a confession or information from the prisoner. Would we accept that? Down that road lies madness."

The men differ, however, on whether officials should be prosecuted after the fact for approving torture and thereby breaking laws or treaties. The son says yes, the father no.

GREGORY FRIED: The kinds of actions that were authorized by the Bush Administration were unequivocably crimes according to U.S. law.

Furthermore, I find both the specific laws that were broken against torture and the theory which empowered the president to do those things so dangerous that the only way it could be made clear to the American political system that these are impermissible actions is through prosecution."

His father had what the Harvard legal scholar called a more pragmatic view.

CHARLES FRIED: It seems to me that in a democracy for the 'ins' to prosecute those who used to be 'in' is a very dangerous, unpragmatic thing to do. And I know enough about the legal system to know that were there actually an attempt to prosecute Vice President Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, those prosecutions would not be resolved until well after the second Palin Administration."

That last bit, of course, was his fanciful way of indicating how fruitless such an endeavor would be.

Overall, a discussion worth mulling over as we mark the passage of another year since 9/11.