- The Phenomenon of Torture Readings and Commentary, and: Torture and Democracy
Torture is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it is one of the oldest practices and has existed throughout history. Still, the revelation of cases of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the context of the War on Terror came to many as a surprise. While torture in authoritarian regimes or failed states may be anticipated, in democracies we believed the rules were different. An array of international and national legal provisions that prohibit the practice is further evidence of these values. Surprisingly, torture in contemporary debate seems to have attained credibility. Torture is now perceived by some as a legitimate practice, even by many individuals and scholars who otherwise value human rights and the rule of law. This reality begs an array of questions: To what extent do torture and democracy really stand in opposition to one another? Is the persistence of torture in democracies rooted in the “bad nature” of human beings, or is it the norm itself that is perhaps unachievable? Is it really an absolute prohibition, as often articulated by human rights advocates, or is there some place for exceptions? If there is, should torture be regulated, and by whom? Is it at all possible? And in any case, is torture really the best way to combat terrorism (or any other war), and at what price? There is a real demand, [End Page 282] then, that we not only revisit questions about the morality and efficacy of torture, but also more generally, about the place of torture in democracies.
Two new books aim to do just that: The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary, edited by William F. Schulz and Torture and Democracy, by Darius Rejali. Both books were written by experts in the field who bring into the discussion their own personal and professional experience. Schulz is an established human rights advocate in the US and the former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, a leading organization in the efforts to eradicate torture worldwide. Rejali is a scholar who has dedicated his career to the examination of the issue of torture, extensively researching torture in Iran, and devoted to this new book no less than twelve years of research.1 His own “intimate relation” to torture, as he puts it in the personal Preface of the book, gives his examination additional force. A descendant of Iranian royal autocrats who never hesitated to use torture to protect their way of life and of a passionate and courageous anti-war activist,2 position him in a unique cultural and political intersection to appreciate—and criticize—the persistence of torture in democracies.
In addition, both books ultimately aim at educating the public, highlighting the danger in the trivialization of torture, and illustrating the large scale implications of torture on individuals and on society at large. Incorporating sources from various disciplines and origin, each book examines cases of torture in numerous countries around the world and exhibit the multi-faceted character of the issue. Torture, they emphasize, does not require high-tech capabilities. On the contrary: it is often low-tech, as Schulz has learned throughout his career, and, as Rejali clearly shows, modern torture has much more to do with simple, day-to-day tools than with cutting edge gadgetry. The overall result is that they provide the public a wake up call about the place of social and individual responsibility in the occurrence and persistence of torture in democracies.
The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary is a compilation of excerpts taken from an array of books and articles written by philosophers, political theorists, legal scholars, psychologists, victims of torture, and others, and examines experiences of torture all across the world. It opens with a captivating foreword by Juan E. Mendez, Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary...