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The Reluctant Philosopher: Prof. Darius Rejali Brought in for Questioning

By Kevin Myers on April 29, 2015 03:41 PM

John Perry, Ken Taylor, Darius Rejali

Prof. Darius Rejali flanked by John Perry (left) and Ken Taylor (right), hosts of NPR's "Philosophy Talk."

On Thursday, April 16, at approximately 8:35 p.m. Professor of Political Science Darius Rejali followed his GPS to an industrial zone along Macadam Avenue in southwest Portland.

Rejali traded the warmth of his SUV for the damp night air. He was wearing a silver crewneck shirt, a dark brown sports jacket, jeans, and black court shoes. Combined with his windswept hair and salt-and-pepper muttonchops, he was easily marked as an academic.

He ambled toward what looked like a glass and steel warehouse. Light radiated from within the building’s core, but it became dim as it reached the foyer, which obscured the image of the man waiting for Rejali. The doors swung open and a voice pierced the darkness, “Are you here to talk about torture?”

And, of course, he was. Rejali had arrived at the OPB studios to be a guest on the nationally syndicated radio show Philosophy Talk. His episode was recorded live and then rebroadcast nationally on April 26. The podcast is available for purchase online.

Rejali is the author of Torture and Democracy, considered the most comprehensive book on the history and evolution of the use of torture by democratic societies. Born in Iran and educated in the U.S. and Canada, Rejali has spent his scholarly career reflecting on violence—specifically on the causes, consequences, and meaning of modern torture. When reporters need to explain torture techniques, or to put incidents of torture into context, or want to know the science or history of its use, Rejali is their go-to guy.

“Why would I want to talk with philosophers on the radio?” asked Rejali when he was approached to appear on the show. “I’ve been a recovering philosopher for more than 20 years.”

Ultimately Rejali agreed because he is passionate about his scholarship and the show was an opportunity to introduce his research to a new audience. “What I really liked about the show is that it was a conversation and Ken and John had done their research,” said Rejali. “The conversation flowed. There were no hardball questions, but they jabbed at me to make sure my views were consistent. It was like having a conversation over a glass of wine. It was fun.”

Philosophy Talk, originates from the Bay Area and is hosted by Ken Taylor and John Perry, professor and professor emeritus, respectively, in Stanford’s philosophy department. The show is based on the wildly popular NPR show Car Talk, where brothers Tom and (the late) Ray Magliozzi (both MIT grads) used their knowledge of cars as a platform to solve automotive problems. John and Ken make no claims to be able to fix anything. Their show aims to make you think, and hopefully laugh.

The show really got rolling with a question about the ticking time-bomb scenario that goes: you have a bad guy in your custody. There is an imminent threat. You know the bad guy has the information you need to stop the threat. What do you do? Philosophically, the question lets you weigh the rights and well being of one bad guy against the life of many innocents. Philosophy allows for that . . .

The problem, according to Rejali, is that this scenario has happened primarily in fiction. The few documented cases that closely resemble the scenario were resolved successfully without torture.

Rejali’s solution to the scenario is simple. “If you’re certain, then torture, but then be willing to stand trial for your actions. If the torture was justified, there is not a jury of your peers that will convict you for saving all those lives. And if they do convict, then you should have the courage to accept the punishment in open court for your mistaken judgment. In fact, no torturer has ever had the courage to do that without being arrested first—no matter how firmly they believed there was a ticking time bomb.” 

“The sadder truth,” Rejali continued, “is that most people will torture as long as they don’t have to stop believing they’re an honest and well-meaning person. The ticking time-bomb story helps them get there, whether it is accurate or not. It consoles them about their actions and beliefs, without having to answer for the consequences.”

In 2003, Rejali was the first Iranian American to become a Carnegie Scholar. In 2007, he won the Human Rights Book Award for Torture and Democracy. In 2009, the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board awarded him with the Danish Distinguished Chair in Human Rights and International Studies. In 2012, Rejali won a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, which was created by Congress as an independent and nonpartisan institution to work to prevent, mitigate, and resolve international conflict through nonviolent means.

Rejali is also the author of Torture and Modernity: Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran (Westview, 1994). He has been a member of the Reed faculty since 1989. He earned a PhD in political science from McGill University and is still in recovery from the BA he earned from Swarthmore College in philosophy.