The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary

The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary

The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary

The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary


Torture is the most widespread human rights crime in the modern world, practiced in more than one hundred countries, including the United States. How could something so brutal, almost unthinkable, be so prevalent? The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary is designed to answer that question and many others. Beginning with a sweeping view of torture in Western history, the book examines questions such as these: Can anyone be turned into a torturer? What exactly is the psychological relationship between a torturer and his victim? Are certain societies more prone to use torture? Are there any circumstances under which torture is justified--to procure critical information in order to save innocent lives, for example? How can torture be stopped or at least its incidence be reduced?

Edited and with an introduction by the former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, The Phenomenon of Torture draws on the writings of torture victims themselves, such as the Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman, as well as leading scholars like Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain. It includes classical works by Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham, Hannah Arendt, and Stanley Milgram, as well as recent works by historian Adam Hochschild and psychotherapist Joan Golston. And it addresses new developments in efforts to combat torture, such as the designation of rape as a war crime and the use of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction to prosecute perpetrators. Designed for the student and scholar alike, it is, in sum, an anthology of the best and most insightful writing about this most curious and common form of abuse. Juan E. Méndez, Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide and himself a victim of torture, provides a foreword.


Juan E. Méndez

Of all human rights violations, torture is the most universally condemned and repudiated. the prohibition on torture is so widely shared across cultures and ideologies that there is little room for disagreement about the fact that physical and psychological abuse, when committed in a widespread or systematic manner, constitutes a crime against humanity, akin to genocide and war crimes in that the world community has pledged to prevent its occurrence and prosecute and punish those who perpetrate it.

And yet despite this unanimity of thought around torture, it is practiced routinely and systematically in more than half of the countries that form the United Nations, and individual instances of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment can be found in virtually all countries, no matter how decent and democratic their institutions. This seeming inability to abolish torture in practice (and not just in law) is the most important challenge faced by the international human rights movement. It is also an occasion for deep frustration for its members who have otherwise made such impressive gains in the last few decades.

There are varied reasons for the pervasiveness of torture and there is no unanimity as to which is the most important. in many countries, an important factor lies in the weakness of institutions set up to protect the human person from abuse. the lack of accountability of members of armed and security forces also contributes. Poor education of law enforcement agents no doubt plays a role. in almost every case, however, responsibility lies at the top: with public officials and leaders who use torture to gain and retain power and to repress any challenge to their authority.

These conditions that provide a fertile ground for torture are notoriously difficult to remove. It has been only through the demands of a highly organized civil society, moved by the moral superiority of its human . . .

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