Last night, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia granted his first broad-based television interview, to Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes. There he explained that the torture of detainees does not violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” because, according to Scalia, torture is not used as punishment:
STAHL: If someone’s in custody, as in Abu Ghraib, and they are brutalized, by a law enforcement person — if you listen to the expression “cruel and unusual punishment,” doesn’t that apply?
SCALIA: No. To the contrary. You think — Has anybody ever referred to torture as punishment? I don’t think so.
STAHL: Well I think if you’re in custody, and you have a policeman who’s taken you into custody–
SCALIA: And you say he’s punishing you? What’s he punishing you for? … When he’s hurting you in order to get information from you, you wouldn’t say he’s punishing you. What is he punishing you for?
Scalia’s parsing of the 8th Amendment blindly ignores reports showing that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was about humiliation and punishment, not information-gathering. In 2004, the Washington Post reported MPs involved in the abuse “said detainees were beaten and sexually humiliated as punishment or for fun.” A recent New Yorker profile of one of the soldiers there confirmed that “mostly what interrogators wanted when they asked for ‘special treatment’ was punishment: take away his mattress, keep him awake, take away his clothes.”
What’s more, as Human Rights First points out, torture raises other constitutional questions besides 8th Amendment violations:
[I]t seems Justice Scalia has forgotten about the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of due process. Furthermore, a court holding a witness in contempt for refusing to cooperate with a judicial proceeding is, in fact, quite different than an interrogator resorting to physical abuse when a prisoner refuses to talk.
Scalia has repeatedly latched on to the “red herring” idea of a ticking time-bomb scenario to justify torture. He approvingly cites torture-happy Jack Bauer, the fictional star of “24,” and recently he declared it would be “absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails, smack them in the face.”