Legality of Torture Debate


In History of Science course "Brainwashing and Modern Techniques of Mind Control," students participate in a role play to debate the legality of torture and other types of coercive interrogation. 

One of the graduate student teaching fellows sends out the directions via email prior to the activity.

Below is part of the email sent out:

Let's presume that after having received Attorney General John Yoo's letter, the counsel to the president approaches you, the world's most eminent historian of brainwashing. "Listen," he says to you, "I've got this letter and I'd like some advice. In your historically-informed opinion, do you think torture/brainwashing/coerced interrogation should be thought of as 'bright-line' issues or 'totality of the circumstances' issues?" 

At the end of this email is a list of the students in section divided into two, random for all intents and purposes. You are going to be assigned one of these positions, and I'd like you to come into class prepared to argue your side (make a list of points for yourself) and counter the other (make a list of questions to challenge them). We aren't looking for legal arguments so much as historical ones. Think about all of the readings we have done so far. They are your best sources and by now you know them well. (There has been a ton in the newspapers in the last week even.) I'll give you a few minutes at the start of class to discuss within your group.

Now to do this exercise we have to know/presume a few things before we start. First, that everyone involved, from the lawyers to the interrogators to the President to the activists, are good faith actors. No one has any kind of shady arch-plan or sadistic schadenfreude, but rather everyone is looking to have an honest debate about policy. This may or may not be true in real life but we're going to take it as true in our section. Second, the distinction between these two positions is by no means a bright line, but for this exercise, we're going to pretend that it is. The attorney general is asking you a legal question more so than a political question. You can make your position as subtle or as hard-line as you would like. Third, this is an exercise; your classmates will be arguing positions they don't necessarily hold, and people may say things that come out as politically incorrect and even possibly (inadvertently) offensive. To this I say that we are all figuring these knotty problems out together so: mind what you say and take what everyone else says with a few grains of salt. Tact and open-mindedness will be the words of the day. Near the end of class we'll disengage and go back to our usual casual chatter. Hopefully, we'll broach a few bigger questions - for instance, why does this issue in particular dominate national conversation? How has the public conversation changed since the Korean War? - and after that we can debrief/exhale and come to terms with the way this week's readings made us feel. (I'm guessing a little sad.) That work? Think this is a good idea? A bad idea? Email me with your thoughts.


The instructor finds that the students have terrific and nuanced discussions, incorporating many of the readings and lessons from lecture. The goal of the activity is to help them distinguish two ways of thinking about the problem, allowing them to hear both sides articulated clearly and make up their own mind how best to solve the problem. Although this type of activity is not especially new, the instructor thinks what makes it particularly effective is how specific it feels. He pulls from specific readings (some of which are ripped from the headlines) and asks a specific (and high stakes) question.