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Face Value or Saving Face

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Why would someone lie? Why would someone ever betray your trust? We all know why, but we still too often just accept what we hear at face value.

Recently there has been a dispute in the media about whether John McCain being shot down and tortured in Viet Nam is a sufficient qualification for him to become President of these United States. However you might come down on this question, there is an article of faith that lies behind it. Without any question we are expected to accept that John McCain was in fact tortured in Viet Nam.

However, there have been some objections to this narrative, even by a McCain supporter who knew him well during his Viet Nam imprisonment. It is easy to reject such a comment - after all, why would McCain lie about being tortured?

Of course there is an open and raging dispute about what constitutes torture and no doubt someone on the receiving end is apt to have a more inclusive definition. But there are other possibilities as well.

I recently listened to a 60 Minutes interview of John McCain ( it was about an hour into the Sam Seeder broadcast of 5/18/2008 ) in which he admitted writing a confession of war crimes against Vietnamese civilians and, in answer to a leading question about whether he was tortured to extract the confession he hesitated and said yes. I found it very interesting that while he openly admitted making the confession, he seemed reluctant to admit to having been tortured.

But if he were not tortured, why else would he confess? Possibly to gain favor with his captors. There is also the matter of the Stockholm syndrome in which a captive person begins to identify with his or her captor. Is it impossible that McCain confessed, later became horrified about what he had done and then concocted the torture story to cover his tracks?

I am in no position to say this is what happened, but it seems as likely as the story that he broke under torture. It has long been an article of faith in our own military and around the world that torture does not provide useful information, though it does yield confessions.

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Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)

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