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What We Talk about When We Talk about Torture
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What We Talk about When We Talk about Torture
Understanding Torture: Law, Violence and Political Identity Jonathan T. Parry Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010
Torture and Democracy Darius Rejali Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007
Torture Team: Uncovering War Crimes in the Land of the Free Philippe Sands London: Penguin, 2009

The Library of Congress holds over eleven hundred volumes with the word "torture" in the title. Nearly half of these have been written since 2001. The records of the British House of Commons show that the word "torture" was mentioned fourteen times in parliamentary debates during 1904, and three hundred and thirty-five different times in 2004. In many people's eyes torture is the dominant human rights issue of the twenty-first century. On both sides of the Atlantic it seems as if everyone has been talking about torture for most of the last ten years. Of all the harms committed over that decade, torture, though terrible, seems to have some heavy competition. Yet it has probably been the issue that has raised the most debate and caused the most soul-searching.

In much of the recent debate about torture, the events of September 11 and the response of American president George W. Bush and his administration are seen as a moment of rupture. For those who support the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," the attack on the twin towers was a wake-up call. Al-Qaeda, they argued, represents an unprecedented threat, and the rules of the game have changed. 1 For those who support the universal and absolute prohibition of torture, the actions of the Bush administration represented a dangerous step back from the progressive elimination of torture over the last two hundred years. 2 Either way, after September 11, as far as approaches to torture are concerned, things are fundamentally different.

In this review essay I want to suggest that the recent increase in talk about torture is not simply an inevitable response to unprecedented interrogation tactics adopted by the Bush administration and its allies. Indeed, there is strong evidence that, in practice, [End Page 327] the techniques used at Guantánamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib, or elsewhere have a history that stretches back throughout the twentieth century. What has changed are the processes and practices that we are able to talk about when we talk about torture. When we speak about torture in the early twenty-first century we speak about very different things than we would had we held the conversation even fifty years ago. Far from being an inevitable outgrowth of post-Enlightenment sensitivity to suffering, torture has moved from being understood as a legitimate technique for the production of evidence, to a mark of inefficiency, to a sign of barbarism, to be among the very worst of crimes against the person. It was only by the late twentieth century, with the end of the Cold War, medicalized notions of trauma, and international human rights campaigns, that torture became associated with a distinct form of cruelty and suffering and a matter of fine-grained debate about legal definitions. Many of the books in the Library of Congress could simply not have been written beforehand.

Talk about torture is often a proxy for wider debates about citizenship and the responsibilities of nation-states and those who speak in their name. When we talk about torture we are also able to talk about compassion for suffering and anger at cruelty and frame these in legal definitions and forms of accountability. Part of the attraction of talking about torture might be, though, the very things that it allows us not to talk about. In talking about torture, we can hold discussions that implicitly assume that violence has a technical solution, rather than being an issue of political and moral choices. We can also reduce politics to a discussion about the attempt to limit needless pain—rather than, say, redistribution. Finally, we can also pathologize only one very small form of violence, defined as torture, implicitly legitimizing many other equally pernicious forms. Talking about torture can narrow down the ways in which we talk about violence.

To stress the relatively recent history...