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The Ethics of Torture

We know that wars can be ethical, even if we agree that they are to be avoided. Can torture ever be ethical?

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it - Aristotle, circa 350 BCE.

We know that wars can be ethical, even if we agree that they should be avoided. Can torture ever be ethical?

Violence is antithetical to civilized society.

Unabated, violence will destroy society, so it is not surprising that a civilized society abhors violence. Yet, we can find an ethical use for violence in such a society.

For as long as violence exists in human culture, it inevitably surfaces. This is akin to saying that we do not live in a perfect civilized society. Faced with violence against its members, when all other non-violent efforts have been exhausted as the very last line of defense, we sometimes have only one option: violence; whether employed by ourselves, or by a proxy such as the police or the military. Even then, we cannot guarantee success, but never exercising it will certainly lead to the destruction of the civilized society. Also, recognize that a violent attack on a civilized society can come from within or from outside society.

Thus it is trivial to see that not only has violence a legitimate and ethical use in civilized society, it'd be unethical to not employ it as the last available option; for we cannot let violence triumph over a civilized society.

If you disagree, consider that you live in just such a society, one that authorizes at least the police or the military to prevent a greater violence from harming us. You also may prefer a different discussion first, like this one.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. - Surak, Vulcan philosopher

Which is to say that the rest of us should have little difficulty with the following affirmation:

We, the members of a free and civilized society, denounce violence, and will never, ever resort to using it against anyone, except when, after great deliberation and exhaustion of all other non-violent methods, it remains the only available option against people who are violent or intent on being so, so identified and determined beyond all reasonable doubt, to defend our civilized society against extinction or significant destruction. We also recognize that we will occasionally err and cause suffering for the wrong people. On such occasions we will strive to undo the damage as best as possible, and guard against recurrence. We further affirm this use of violence to be an ethical imperative, and also consider it unethical to not employ it under aforementioned circumstances.

Let's now consider the practice of torture, whose ethics I'd like us to examine. Webster's is a good starting point to define torture, but I will narrow the scope acutely.

Torture has served roughly five distinct purposes through history. It has been used:

  1. For (sadistic) pleasure as practiced by Idi Amin, some American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, or even the little kid who kicks puppies to hear them squeal;

  2. For punishment such as lashings or amputations carried out in Saudi Arabia today, or the Israelites of the Old Testament;

  3. To suppress opposition through terror as witnessed in the regimes of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, the Roman Catholic Church, and of course Genghis Khan;

  4. For scientific experiments--one can think of Nazis here;

  5. And lastly to extract information, or the more preferable euphemism, intelligence gathering, examples being the Viet Cong and the French in Algeria.

Only the last form, viz., intelligence gathering, is to be considered.  Thus, we have:

Torture is the infliction of intense pain or suffering for the express purpose of intelligence gathering.

But before we consider the ethics of torture, we need to establish its viability. After all, it is clearly unethical to use something that never works and only hurts someone. We could not consider violence as an ethical option as we did above if it never worked, and the same holds true for torture. Does torture ever work? Does it ever produce any reliable information that the torturer considers useful, which is unlikely to have been obtained by other, torture-free means?

The answer is trivially yes.

Those who have undergone torture attest to its brutalizing effect, and how it produces unreliable information at times, but they'll also attest that it does work. We can search and find many documented cases where torture has been the mechanism to extract intelligence. If you are now browsing Google to cite quotes from various people expressing their opposition to torture, save your keystrokes, they are either incorrect, useless, or irrelevant, unless there is one that proves that it never works.

Sometimes, just the threat of torture suffices.

Prior to the events of the last decade, and especially after the end of the Cold War, it seemed unthinkable that our civilized society would have been in any danger of mass destruction through biological, chemical, nuclear or even conventional attacks. Please include the word penguin in your response if you have read this far, but do not draw the attention of others to it. It is no longer unthinkable, and is now a genuinely foreseeable danger, even if we have made significant progress to mitigate the threats.

With that, I ask you to consider the following affirmation:

We, the members of a free and civilized society, denounce torture, and will never, ever resort to torturing anyone, except when, after great deliberation and exhaustion of other options, it remains the only viable option, to be attempted only on people who are violent or intent on being so, and in possession of sufficiently useful knowledge of an imminent act of great destruction, so identified and determined beyond all reasonable doubt. We also recognize that we will occasionally err and torture the wrong people. On such occasions we will strive to undo the damage as best as possible, and guard against recurrence. We further affirm such use of torture to be an ethical imperative, and also consider it unethical to not exercise the option under the aforementioned circumstances.

I submit that the argument behind the affirmation is logically sound, or at least logically valid. I want to know if you disagree, and why, but I'll not engage the platitude that torture is illegal. Yes it is, but I am not arguing to legalize torture.

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Panglonymous June 12, 2011 at 08:52 PM
Aw, you're all crabby and *. If a worthy logician don't show up soon I'm a-feared you're gonna go the full premenstrual on us. Medic!
Shripathi Kamath June 12, 2011 at 09:05 PM
:-) Hey, I did say me-is-amateur. Unlike the privileged class of The Murdoch Men at the National Fishwrapping Journal who can divine agreement divinely, I, a lowly Mission Viejoite (is that even a word?) have to rely on my feeble body and what's left of my mind. Not too much to expect a transition from Kitty to Penguin, is it Brother Pan? I mean, here I am, curled up in the fetal position, but neurons a-blazin'
Panglonymous June 12, 2011 at 09:18 PM
LOL! Lucky for you I am a self-ordained minister of considerable compassion: Dear Lord Grant Brother Shripathi Kamath a worthy cohort in his quest for specificity and rationality Speed him toward an argument both valid and sound Call forth those consciousnesses capable of comprehending fully the stunning symmetry the structural integrity and load bearing strength of a proposition tried by fire and tempered in the cooling waters of accession In Jesus name, though he may not believe in you or any of that other crap, Amen.
Roy Bauer June 13, 2011 at 03:18 AM
Penguins? I’ve been away in Europe. I only just now read your piece. 1. There is, I think, a confusion in your reasoning, though I’m not sure how deeply it runs. You say that torture works, that it is plain that it works. Perhaps in part for that reason you provide the last affirmation. But what does it mean to say that torture works? It is easily demonstrated (I suppose) that, sometimes, upon being tortured, people give up information that they do not wish to divulge. Suppose that’s true. Does it follow that, at times, if we seek to combat violence, we must engage in torture? No. It does not follow because the question is not whether torture “works” in this simple sense. The question is whether there are situations in which, without the use of torture, the violence-combating information cannot be acquired. Sure, John McCain gave up the nature of his mission in Vietnam because he was tortured. But it is possible that the information could have been extracted from McCain through other means. So when you say that torture works, you need to be clear: you have only shown that it is (at times) a means of extracting information from a subject who does not wish to divulge it. It remains possible that there exist methods, that do not entail torture, that could also have acquired the information. To the extent that that possibility exists, the use of torture is not justified.
Roy Bauer June 13, 2011 at 03:18 AM
2. You and some of your respondents should be more careful in your appeal to logical concepts such as validity and soundness. In the field of logic, to say that an argument is valid is to say that, upon assigning “truth” to each of its premises and “false” to its conclusion, a contradiction is yielded. Thus, the following argument is valid: If a cough, I die. I am not dead. Thus I did not cough. To say that an argument is valid is to comment on the truth relationship between (1) the premises and (2) the conclusion; it is to say that, WERE the premises true, then the conclusion would then have to be true too (otherwise there’d be a contradiction). To say that an argument is “sound” is to say, first, that it is valid, and, second, that each of its premises is true. (A sound argument necessarily has a true conclusion.) It is by no means clear to me that you present an argument that is valid let alone sound. If you seek to determine whether your argument is valid, you need to clearly identify each premise and the conclusion. I’m afraid that your discussion is sufficiently unclear that I would not be confident that I could do that on your behalf.
Roy Bauer June 13, 2011 at 03:19 AM
3. By the way, the following argument is NOT valid: God is love. Love is blind. Therefore, God is blind. Speaking as someone trained in logic, I can assure you that anyone who supposes that the above argument is valid does not understand the logician’s concept of validity (and thus does not understand the concept of soundness). To assess the validity of reasoning entails identifying its form or structure—and that entails identifying the form of its constituent statements. Please note that the logical form of premise 1 and premise 2 is a complex matter (or worse), in part owing to the vagueness and ambiguity of these statements.
Roy Bauer June 13, 2011 at 03:19 AM
4. I think you need to lower your ambitions. You’ve taken on too much here. In order to provide an adequate account of the ethics of torture, you will have to first (a) master the issue conceived as a puzzle for utilitarians—i.e., those who approach morality entirely in terms of the maximization of some goal (e.g., the minimization of pain, the maximization of happiness). (b) recognize the well-known difficulties of the utilitarian doctrine—perhaps the most important of which is that, evidently, the utilitarian cannot account for “justice” or the notion of persons as having rights, and (c) get up to speed regarding the concept of moral rights understood as a conception of persons according to which their standing entails “side constraints” on the behavior of all others in conduct that affects them. You seem to have an interest in “moral dilemmas.” I recommend that you read Gregory Kavka’s well-known “Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence.” You might also read Michael Walzer’s famous essay, “Dirty Hands.”
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 03:45 AM
Thanks Roy, that was indeed kind. "It remains possible that there exist methods, that do not entail torture, that could also have acquired the information. To the extent that that possibility exists, the use of torture is not justified." The point being that if you can obtain the information by means that do not involve torture, the use of torture is not justified. I agree. My argument commences after that. When *all* other means have been explored. My citing McCain is not to describe the relative effectiveness of torture over other means in all situations but to cite that torture is *a* means of extracting information, even if in McCain's case it is rather evident that it was the most effective.
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 03:49 AM
That was made by someone else, but I did endorse. To me, the validity stemmed from a simple IF A THEN B, IF B THEN C. A. Therefore C. The vagueness or the ambiguity is retained through both, isn't it? (A no would suffice, and I'll dig deeper. I do not mean for you to educate me for free, in a blog, even though I'd appreciate it)
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 03:50 AM
Thanks, that seems like good advice.
Dan Avery June 13, 2011 at 03:56 AM
I was taught that if a=b and b= c than a must = c. But that was in a deductive logic class at the university of Minnesota in 1976. Is that formula no longer valid? As far as other forms of extracting information the approach they used with Saddamn was that an interrogator "befriended" him. There was no torture at all and they got a lot of information from him. Sadists tend to prefer torture, and I'm not sure if they even care if it works. The same deal as those who prefer the death penalty.
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 04:04 AM
OK, and this is not the forum for it, but would the correct form for presenting it require the notational representation of logic?
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 04:08 AM
Dan, Roy's point seems to be that a, b, and c as defined are vague or ambiguous in definition. I have the same question.
Dan Avery June 13, 2011 at 04:29 AM
That's all well and good but my point was that one can't apply logic in a meaningful way to either man or God and that is why we invented poetry. Hence the verse by Stephen Crane. I mean logic is nothing more than being clever with words, like poetry, and it needn't even contain "truth," again like poetry. So it's not really any different than poetry, except that it's a lower form of rhetoric, because it's based in abstractions that have so many different meanings they are truly meaningless no matter how one defines them, it's a lot easier to write than a poem because it lacks complexity, depth and precision, and it lacks Art. And by that I mean that when you begin to use concrete images, a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater, say, you can no longer control all the associations a reader will come to find there. Therefore, the text really ceases to exist until the next reader comes along and creates it by giving it meaning. It is in that sense a writer may approach saying something meaningful as far as man and God go, but only because the writer removed herself and the importance of herself from the notion of a poem. If the writer has a "message" that must be heard, and understood the way the writer intended it, then the "writer" (so-called) is nothing more than an egotistical fascist.
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 04:42 AM
"one can't apply logic in a meaningful way to either man or God" I'll agree with half of that. "If the writer has a "message" that must be heard, and understood the way the writer intended it, then the "writer" (so-called) is nothing more than an egotistical fascist." Guilty as charged, I suppose. I am no poet, nor pretend or aspire to be one. I also do not have a message that *must* be heard, only a perspective to be discussed, so you'll forgive me if I tried to make it clear what seemed obscure or was obscured to some readers.
Roy Bauer June 13, 2011 at 05:20 AM
1. God is love 2. Love is blind 3. Thus God is blind You are assuming that “is” in the two premises is the “is” of identity, as when one says that Superman is Clark Kent. One might make a case for that in the first premise (though I would dispute it), but one cannot make a case for the second. “Love is blind” clearly is not suggesting that “love” is identical with blindness. Rather, blindness is a characteristic attributed to love, as it is attributed to RC in “Ray Charles is blind.” On the other hand, if the 1st premise is saying that God and Love are one and the same, then, despite the 2nd premise being the attribution of a characteristic to something (not an equivalency statement), the argument would appear to be valid. But I’m not convinced that those who assert that God is love intend an equivalency. It seems to me that they mean that God is many things and among these (and, perhaps most importantly), He is love. If I say that energy is visible light, I do not mean that visible light and energy are one and the same; rather, I mean that the phenomenon of visible light is one manifestation of energy. Energy is also infrared radiation, etc.
Shripathi Kamath June 13, 2011 at 06:44 AM
I need to say this after I mulled this a bit more. Thank you very much, Roy. For keeping your word. For being kind while grading a self-proclaimed amateur philosopher's essay. For a careful enough critique and pointed corrections, exercising what I can only imagine to be Herculean restraint. Equally, I would have settled for three words and a letter, but would not have understood why. "Not even wrong. F" I think I do now.
Dan Avery June 13, 2011 at 06:09 PM
That's interest, Roy and thanks. I took an intro class and I'm pretty sure we were taught that a and b were just values like a number is. But it was 1976 so I'm probably mis- remembering. However, I've studied language a fair bit and if you say "energy is visible light" you have actually equated the two. If by that statement you mean that one manifestation of enery is visible light, then you need to actually say "one manifestation of enery is visible light." If I say "I love Victoria" it is a completely meaningless statement. When Victoria reads it, those words only take on meaning because of all the specific concrete moments she remembers: the smiles, the extra careful way I make the bed, the cups of coffee I've brought her, the way I would cook bacon while she stayed in the tent in her sleeping bag because she loved the smell of me doing that on a crisp morning. "I love Victoria," by itself doesn't mean any of that. So when one says God is Love, all we can rightly assume is that person equates them. Otherwise the person would have said something else. Of course we can also assume the person doesn't write well,but then we can't assume meaning for their words, because we don't have access to the thoughts.
Roy Bauer June 13, 2011 at 07:04 PM
"So when one says God is Love, all we can rightly assume is that person equates them." --Honestly, I just don't know why you say this. On what basis do you say this? In any case, the issue is indeed what the speaker means. I Googled "God is love" (and, in particular, the Bible verses that are said to include this sentiment) and I am left with the impression that "God is love" is understood to be saying a great many things, including things that are not compatible with the identity thesis, though, of course, the identity thesis can also be found here. I can only say that, though some who utter this phrase may have a clear meaning, there are many who do not, and there certainly is tremendous variety is what is intended here.
Dan Avery June 14, 2011 at 01:28 AM
To assume one knows what a writer meant is called the authorial fallacy. One can talk about what a sentence means. "god is love" is a simple declarative sentence that equates the two. It means nothing more than that. It's pretty widely accepted that is how language works, Roy and is in keeping with deconstruction theory and nothing else you'll find discussed in the top-tier English departments.
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 02:23 AM
I do not assume that I know what a speaker meant--it rather depends on the case. Sometimes, yes, I do believe I know what a speaker meant. I would be amazed were you to deny that you ever have confidence that you know what a speaker meant. Really? If your wife says, "I think you're being rude," you don't know what she means? You must have an interesting marriage (if you're married). In any case, I do believe that the meaning of an utterance is tied to what the speaker means. Evidently, you do not. I see that you are appealing to "deconstruction" theory. That is your right, of course. But please be aware that many people in my field (philosophy--i.e., what goes on in philosophy departments, not literary departments) reject (or worse than reject) deconstruction theory. I do realize that many denizens of English and lit departments imagine themselves to be philosophers, and since they read the "deconstructionists," deconstruction must be pretty important to them. No doubt it is. But among philosophers in this country (not people in literary departments), "deconstruction" and the likes is pretty fringy and generally not highly regarded. I don't mean this as a put down. I just want you to understand how I, trained in American academic philosophy, am receiving your appeal to deconstruction theory. You say "'God is love' is a simple declarative sentence that equates the two." Really? And you will not respect an opinion to the contrary? Gosh. OK then.
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 02:53 AM
1. "OK, and this is not the forum for it, but would the correct form for presenting it require the notational representation of logic?" --I'm not sure what you're asking, but I think I get it. In my field (philosophy), we proceed as follows: we isolate the premises and the conclusion of an argument (including any tacit premises). We seek to be true to the author's intent (evidently, in some fields, this is called a fallacy; not in logic or philosophy). Further, if there is a deficiency in the reasoning that can be corrected, we make the correction (the principle of charity). Any argument--any piece of reasoning--can be expressed in a series of propositions. It is an important goal of logic to provide a "language" (the notation to which you refer, I guess) that will allow translation of any reasoner's meaning into a logical language (sometimes called "official standard form," etc.) that is truth functional--i.e., that has clear truth conditions. Thus, for instance, if an arguer asserts that, "If you know something, then you believe something," there is a logical language that includes a handful of connectives, including the horseshoe: ⊃ The horseshoe connector is defined as follows: (continued)
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 03:02 AM
2. (Def. of "A ⊃ B") A ⊃ B (is true) just in case either A is true and B is true A is false and B is true A is false and B is false A ⊃ B is false only if A is true and B is false Now, if the author's meaning in saying "If you know something, then you believe something" is well captured with this connective, then we can express it as A ⊃ B --where A is "You know something" and B is "You believe something." Once you have all of your premises and your conclusion properly "translated" (without loss of meaning), then we end up with something that may look like one of these: A ⊃ B ~B ∴ ~A or A ⊃ B A ∴ B or A ⊃ B B ∴ A --and so on. (continued)
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 03:07 AM
3. (continued) Because these new expressions (in our logical language) have the advantage of having clearly defined truth conditions, we can now determine whether these arguments are valid or invalid -- i.e., we can determine whether they are "truth preserving" in a rigorous manner. Once we have your reasoning pared down to a series of propositions, we can perform this sort of "translation" of your premises and conclusion into a logical language that is truth-functional. We can then rigorously determine whether the argument is valid. If the argument is determined to be valid, we must then ask if its premises are true (the last requirement for a deductive argument). In Philosophy (as in the natural sciences), few take the skeptical view that the truth or falsity of sentences can never be determined with some degree of confidence. And so we proceed with caution, seeking to determine the truth of the premises (perhaps only with a degree of probability). (It appears that in some fields this is anathema.)
Dan Avery June 14, 2011 at 05:56 AM
When asked what he meant by "And I have miles to go before I sleep,/And milesto go before I sleep" Robert Frost replied that he really didn't know, that "it just sounded good." Most of the time that's the reason a fiction writer or a poet puts certain words in certain orders. Upon reflection the fiction writer or the poet sees something in the phrase or image, but it's quite often very different from what other readers see in it. So if you really think you can speak to a writer's intent, go ahead. By the way I'm very successfully married, probably because I don't assume what she means and I ask her to clarify instead. The two roles of writer and reader are vastly different. Derrida was the first critic to be completely honest about that. In fact his "theory" is patiently obvious to every writer I've known and we've wondered why he was so famous. But then we've never really understood the need for Ph.D's either. They are bird watchers really. But they don't have a clue as to what it's like to be a bird. And just so you know Lit department tend to discount the Philosophers too. We tend to wonder why you're so enamored with abstractions that have as many definitions as there are people on the plsnet. Your discipline seems to spend a lot of time, and pages, defining abstractions to get to the same level of complexity Hemingway got to in the four pages of "A Clean, Well-lighted Place" or as in "Hills Like White Elephants."
Dan Avery June 14, 2011 at 06:25 AM
Oh and since you shared your petigree, I'll share mine: my undergraduate training was at a college that has consistently been ranked in the top 40 nationwide, and my graduate training was at the number two school for writing in the U. S. and at the time I was there it was the number one English Department in the U.S. I really don't agree that people in English departments think they are philosophers. Instead I'd say they are more interested in the number of ways written art can be interpreted, in the ways in which language must be used in order to become art, and in the ways the written arts reflect what it means to be human.
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 06:13 PM
If we grant that G: There are occasions in which opting for the use of torture (on, say, a captured terrorist) will increase the chances of acquiring information – specifically in cases in which such information possibly would prevent moral disaster (e.g., the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a city) Then (and I take this to be Shri’s central insight) it is morally odd (and by no means plainly wise) to adopt an absolute prohibition/condemnation against the use of torture, for such prohibition would seem to allow moral disaster—situations even more regrettable (from a moral perspective) than the instance of torture. Philosophers have long known that, in contemplating extreme cases—as actually occur in, say, the setting of national leadership—paradoxes (I use the term advisedly) emerge. Thus, for instance, Gregory Kavka once argued that, to bring about the morally best outcome, it may be necessary for some individuals within a society to become morally corrupt—in order to act under special circumstances in a manner in which no decent moral being would act (namely, retaliating against a nuclear onslaught with a reciprocating [and pointless] nuclear onslaught, for the sake of effective deterrence). (continued)
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 06:14 PM
A utilitarian (of a classic variety) always acts to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it would seem that, in doing so, he will be obliged on occasion to violate individuals’ rights. But if everyone were a utilitarian, and if that were known, then everyone would live in fear of becoming that next utilitarian sacrifice to “the greatest happiness”—and this would ipso facto lower the level of happiness in society considerably. Thus, paradoxically, a utilitarian would not seek that everyone be a utilitarian Many years ago, some philosophers began considering morality/ethics in two ways: from the individual’s perspective and the perspective of a moral being who has the opportunity to decide on the rules and practices that would be adopted by everyone in society. Arguably, one would be in a much better position to maximize happiness (or minimize violence, pain, etc.—or, indeed, achieve any overarching goal) if one had the latter perspective and could somehow enforce it or cause individuals to act accordingly. (Example of such theorizing: Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” 1971) It seems clear that no society can flourish in which free and informed members are permitted acts of violence (including torture) as means to their goals, however noble. On the other hand, arguably, a society can together reflect on that general perspective mentioned above and in this way see the wisdom of permitting torture for cases such as G above. (continued)
Roy Bauer June 14, 2011 at 06:14 PM
(finally...) In a sense, we already do this. I would argue that no large society (perhaps there should be no large societies!) can flourish without a military and a substantial army. Further, no large army could function if it allowed its soldiers to exercise moral autonomy. And in fact, actual armies (certainly ours) operate in a manner that discourages autonomy among individual soldiers. I have generally refrained from applying my usual demand (of persons) that they exercise moral autonomy in the case of soldiers (and other classifications) exactly because of this recognition that, as a matter of practical fact, no military can function if it encourages precisely the sort of character that, normally, we hope to instill in our children. So my perspective (here) parallels Kavka’s. <END>
Bretta June 15, 2011 at 02:04 AM
My concern with the statement "torture works" is that I think it is false. Torture only works indirectly, or with preexisting knowledge of the information sought, and it is an ineffective method which never occurs in a vacuum. It doesn't just hurt the recipient, but their associates and loved ones as well as the person (or nation) doing the torturing. It is a matter of the calculus of economics, where the X-axis meets the Y-axis. The torturer must escalate to force the torturee to cross that point. If the tortured person's belief in what they value is very high that point may never be reached; what then, murder? Release? Hold indefinitely? Detention for torture has a very high cost and a very low yield in quality and quantity (economically unsound) Un-mentioned is the elephant in the room: The Bush-Cheney propaganda that torture is necessary and effective; perpetration of the torture (ethical or otherwise); as well as the glaring lack of political will to demand that it end immediately.

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