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Sacred Violence

Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty

Paul W. Kahn

Publication Year: 2008

In Sacred Violence, the distinguished political and legal theorist Paul W. Kahn investigates the reasons for the resort to violence characteristic of premodern states. In a startling argument, he contends that law will never offer an adequate account of political violence. Instead, we must turn to political theology, which reveals that torture and terror are, essentially, forms of sacrifice. Kahn forces us to acknowledge what we don't want to see: that we remain deeply committed to a violent politics beyond law. Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights. Cover Illustration: "Abu Ghraib 67, 2005" by Fernando Botero. Courtesy of the artist and the American University Museum.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Law, Meaning, and Violence


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p. ix

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Introduction: The Puzzle of Torture

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pp. 1-16

If we are quite willing to kill, why not torture? In the midst of a “war on terror,” we find ourselves engaged with this question again. Much seems to be at stake in the debate: legally, historically, and morally. The elimination of torture from penal and investigatory practices was a central element in the development of modern law. The American Constitution prohibited “cruel and unusual punishment”...

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pp. 17-20

Today, terror and torture appear as the moral and legal pathologies characteristic of opposing sides in what is effectively, if not formally, a war. Terror is what terrorists do; torture is what governments do. Terror evokes torture in response, and torture evokes terror. Viewed from a distance, there is a significant overlap between these two forms of violent behavior...

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1. Torture and Sovereignty

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pp. 21-41

debates over torture are often mired in questions of definition. With torture, as with pornography, agreement on paradigmatic instances does not lead to agreement on a definition. Of course, torture involves violence or the threat of violence, but so do other political practices, including punishment and combat. Not surprisingly, these are just the places at which torture is likely to occur as well...

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2. Torture and International Law

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pp. 42-69

in the first chapter, I argued that political modernity was characterized by a shift from torture to war, from victims to conscripts. The disappearance of torture as a domestic practice of power, however, does not in itself suggest a similar disappearance of torture from the practice of international violence. Torture was traditionally applied against enemies—domestic and foreign—of the sovereign...

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3. The Current Debate: Torture in the War on Terror

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pp. 70-90

Those who are willing to consider the use of torture today portray it as an investigative technique to be used in the war on terror. More narrowly still, torture’s justification lies in the prevention of injury.1 It is not to be a technique to investigate past crimes, nor is it to be a form of punishment. Rather, they claim that torture can be used to prevent terrorist acts that are about to occur: the “ticking time bomb.”...

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At the core of the ticking time bomb hypothetical is an exchange of lives: threat is met by counterthreat. What is puzzling about the hypothetical is why we would have any trouble with it at all, given that we would not hesitate to attack a person carrying the time bomb. We would likely do so even if we thought he was a morally innocent third party—for example, someone who does not know what he is doing...

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4. A Primer on Political Violence

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pp. 93-130

Since 9/11, a number of countries, including the United States, have made it clear that they are willing to shoot down civilian aircraft that threaten destruction to populations or important installations. Again, this looks like a utilitarian calculus—measuring lives lost against lives saved—but that is only partially correct. When the German Constitutional Court declined to accept a similar policy...

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5. Crossing the Border between Law and Sovereignty

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pp. 131-169

juxtaposing the ticking time bomb and the hand grenade hypotheticals poses the question of the relationship between torture and self-sacrifice. If I am willing to suffer terrible bodily injury and even die for the political community, should I be equally willing to do the same to others in order to protect the community? Ordinarily, suffering and acting do not stand in a relationship of reciprocal implication...

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Conclusion: Torture, Terror, and Sacrifice

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pp. 170-178

Because symbolic systems—including that of the political—are only partially self-conscious, there is no reason to expect a direct relationship between the forms of self-presentation and the forms of experience. We know this directly in our personal experience of ourselves and others. What we say about ourselves tells us—and others—something, but we would often be mistaken...


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pp. 179-206


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pp. 207-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780472022946
E-ISBN-10: 0472022946
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472050475
Print-ISBN-10: 0472050478

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Law, Meaning, and Violence
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OCLC Number: 503050823
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sacred Violence

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sovereignty.
  • Political violence.
  • Terrorism -- Prevention -- Law and legislation.
  • Torture.
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