Torture debate reignites academics' bitter feud

June 18, 2004

A bitter row has reopened between two eminent Ivy League academics over whether governments should have the right to torture terrorist suspects under interrogation.

Last week's Times Higher carried an article by Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University, advocating "torture warrants" as a means of holding the authorities to account for use of non-lethal interrogation techniques. In a letter to the editor this week, Brendan O'Leary, professor of political science at Pennsylvania University, claims Professor Dershowitz has an "attention-seeking gene" that led him to "act shamelessly in the belief that all publicity is good publicity".

Professor O'Leary said: "At a time when most Americans are rightly ashamed of what has been done in their name in Baghdad dungeons, Dershowitz has chosen to repeat arguments which he has made before, and which have been falsified before."

In 2002, the two waged a war of words through The Times Higher Letters page over Professor O'Leary's review of Professor Dershowitz's book Why Terrorism Works , casting doubts on each other's motives.

In response to Professor O'Leary's letter this week, Professor Dershowitz accused him of preferring " ad hominem to argumentation". Professor Dershowitz stressed that he was advocating accountability rather than torture.

He said: "O'Leary is the best proof of the thesis of my article: that it is difficult to have a serious discussion about choices of evil without being accused of supporting one or both of the evils.

"His ideologically skewed anti-intellectualism should be obvious to any discerning reader."

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, said Professor Dershowitz's idea of torture warrants was "ingenious" - but he was "worried about George W. Bush being the one to sign off on the permission to torture".

Professor Singer said: "Perhaps if permission had to be approved by both the President and the Chief Justice, and made public within a month of approval, it would be a sufficient constraint to ensure it would be used in a true emergency only, when the consequences would otherwise be catastrophic."

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