Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.3 (Fall 2009): Book Reviews: "On Torture" Edited by Thomas C. Hilde [Full Text]

Sep 11, 2009

On Torture, Thomas C. Hilde, ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 238 pp., $25 paper.

Karen Greenberg (Reviewer)

This edited collection is an excellent and illuminating addition to the literature on the torture policy of the Bush administration during its war on terror. In fifteen succinct essays, the contributors—including Ariel Dorfman, Darius Rejali, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Tzvetan Todorov—explore the history and practice of torture beyond the United States and what these non-American examples say about the United States' role in this area. The reader is exposed to Colombia and its drug wars, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, to the torture chambers and concentration camps of medieval and Nazi Europe, to the secret chambers of Chile, and to the brutal French policies used against the FLN in Algeria. In these essays the authors consider ways in which torture at American hands, and specifically at Abu Ghraib prison, fits into the patterns of institutionalized abuse that become apparent through these comparisons.

The result is startling. Whereas analysis of the Bush policies has seldom ventured outside a narrow context—contemporary, American, and focused more on the legal trail than the actual abuses themselves—these new essays, in widening the scope of the analysis, intensify our sense of the level of the wrong that has been committed. Overall, the authors see torture, which they all condemn outright, as inevitably part of a larger picture. Torture, they argue, often occurs within a larger context of violence and instability, where, for example, there exist war and war crimes, where communities are displaced and forcibly confined, where whole groups are massacred, and where individuals disappear, are kept in secret prisons, and sometimes are summarily executed. The authors do not necessarily link these abuses and crimes to the current U.S. experience, but their discussions powerfully suggest that the road that leads to torture has all too often eventually included other crimes against human rights as well. Torture, these authors argue, is ultimately a sign of a "contaminated" political as well as moral context. "The corruption of the legal system" is one thing, Carlos Castresana writes, but beyond that, "Moral complicity inexorably expands its stain throughout all official institutions and society" (p. 137). The full set of violations, from illegal arrest and detention to torture, amounts in his mind to nothing less than a "breach of the social contract" (p. 142).

In addition to legal and historical analyses, editor Thomas Hilde has chosen to include a number of essays that concentrate on the personal aspect of torture—on the experiences of the tortured and on the mind-set of the torturers themselves. This focus on the individual, human experience of torture is the most unsettling dimension of the collection. "Torture is personal," writes Adi Ophir (p. 29). It embodies a "relation of intimacy," one protected by the perceived needs of the state. Christopher Britt Arredondo spares his readers nothing in his graphic firsthand depiction of the removal of a tongue as the final stage of torture. Pilar Calveiro comments on the way in which torturers as individuals present themselves, registering her surprise at the fact that the photos from Abu Ghraib include "the perpetrators, smiling and victorious...proud to be torturers" (p. 122). Finding the link between the personal and the political, Barbara Ehrenreich notes that the United States has essentially created an "empire of pain" (p. 185).

In this personal dimension, Ehrenreich suggests, lies the more extensive corruption that state-sanctioned torture signifies. Eduardo Subirats explains that torture is "an instrument of spirituality." In fact, he sees it as "the most privileged spiritual expression" of the power of the modern state when it manifests a compulsion for dominance, corruption, and destruction. For Ariel Dorfman, the institutionalization of torture presupposes a compromise of the individual, who willingly refuses to think about the torture being carried out in his name. "Torture," he writes, "requires us to be deaf and blind and mute" (p. 111). Taking this one step further, Stephanie Athey sees torture in the American context as a "communal fantasy" (p. 98) in which those who support it are convinced that they will never be subject to it. In the eyes of Alphonso Lingis, even the Abu Ghraib photographs could not dislodge this sense of "intrinsic righteousness" among supporters of torture (p. 108).

Appropriately, several authors focus on the way in which contorted logic has characterized the emergence of torture as a U.S. policy from the fall of 2001 forward, as U.S. government lawyers convinced themselves that they could change the definition of torture, thereby changing the law itself. Michael Hatfield points to the government's "endorsement of torture as the lesser-of-two- evils in its war on terrorism" (p. 160). As Hatfield explains, officials and the American public saw a choice between endangering national security and participating in torture, and thereby chose the latter. Hatfield refers to the recrafting of the law as providing "permission to torture," the basis of a systematic policy rather than a legal brief designed to exculpate individuals caught in a moment of passion or even perceived necessity (p. 155). For him, the moral implications of this are obvious: "The belief that maiming and twisting and breaking human minds and bodies are supposed to safeguard our well-being arises from the darkest depths of human confusion" (p. 149). With a tragic sense of just how damaging the removal of long-accepted laws can be, Ophir argues that the brutalities that ensue once the law is lifted or distorted create a "sphere almost entirely detached from the law and mostly indifferent to it" (p. 36).

The ultimate effect of these essays is to eradicate the sense of American political or moral exceptionalism by showing how very little is new here. Acknowledging the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration's legal memos justifying torture as the backdrop for their inquiries, these authors allude in example after example to the way in which the American encounter with torture replays other well-known examples of state-sponsored abuse. Looking at Algeria, Tzvetan Todorov points out that, according to those who defended the practice, "torture was the only way to win the war. The Algerian war was not a traditional war...the enemy did not engage them on a mutually recognized battlefield" (p. 19). So, too, as Darius Rejali notes, there is little that is novel about "misrecognition...the sociological process in which people pass off one kind of situation as another," such as denying the degree of brutality used against alleged terrorists (p. 167). Similarly, Rebecca Wittman argues that the claim to immunity has an eerie echo in the National Socialist judiciary's attempt to "shape and distort the public understanding of what the crime was" and to "normalize the crimes of the vast majority" in an effort to claim immunity for themselves (p. 11). Twisting the law, dehumanizing the victims, asserting that the means justifies the ends, and claiming immunity from prosecution—all of these, the authors point out, are signs of state-sponsored torture that predated the Bush administration's crafting of its own legalized torture policy.

The patterns of torture and torture policy are much too familiar. And in that familiarity, the authors collectively suggest, lies a further tragedy. Amid all the many generalizations about torture, the contributors do find ways in which the American involvement with torture after 9/11 has been unique. The United States, this volume makes inescapably clear, has left the world bereft of a symbol of moral exceptionalism. "What is new," writes Thomas Hilde in his introduction, "is the overt legal institutionalization of torture by a state that traditionally purports to be the opposite of tyranny" (p. 4). Unflinching and unforgiving, Hilde's volume impresses the reader not just with the depravity of the world of torture that the United States chose to enter but with the sense that the road back to human decency will be a difficult one—one framed, as Dorfman suggests, by the refusal to let fear justify that which erases our humanity.

—KAREN J. GREENBERG The reviewer is Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University and author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days (2009).

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