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Reading List September 28, 2019

The Legality and Reality of Torture

Our best writing from our archives on why torture is not the same thing as interrogation.
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Amid all the global scandals recently,  has been drowned out. On September 18th, U.S. judges in a federal appellate court finally admitted that “enhanced” interrogation techniques are torture. 

This comes seventeen years too late. In that time, Abu Zubaydah—the Saudi Arabian citizen detained in the wake of September 11 and still languishing in Guantánamo—has been waterboarded on 83 occasions, as well as being subjected to sleep deprivation, confinement in small, dark boxes, and physical assault.

In our latest piece, Joseph Margulies, one of Abu Zubaydah’s former lawyers, argues that while the decision is good news, we should have done much more. In the intervening years, the failure to register our collective disgust has allowed torture to become “just another word. Defused, it loses its explosiveness.”

We have paired Margulies’ essay with other essays from our archive in an effort to recapture some of what is at stake here: from the ethics of torture, to its legality, to its reality. Boston Review regular Judith Levine makes the case that asking whether torture “works” is an immoral question, Israeli legal scholar Itamar Mann examines the United States’s use of an Israeli precedent on abusive interrogation, and investigate reporter Lance Tapley reveals the results of his five years spent researching the torture conditions at a supermax prison in Maine.

—Rosie Gillies


U.S. Judges Admit Enhanced Interrogation Is Torture
by Joseph Margulies

“The country is reaching the point when it can publicly face up to our history as torturers precisely because it is history. We have moved on; waterboarding is so 2002.”

• • •

“Does Torture Work?” Is an Immoral Question
by Judith Levine

“Even if torture does work, it is still wrong. And the minute we start considering it as a tool to select to get the job done—like a wrench or a pliers to turn a bolt—then we do not only dehumanize those we torture, we cease to be human ourselves.”

• • •

Cruel and Unusual
by Colin Dayan

“What is most striking about current legal redefinitions of punishment is how much they have in common with law that reconstructed the identity of the slave. In terms of social conditioning, this re-animation of subhuman status as the criminal ‘type’ guarantees the stigma that justifies dehumanization.”

• • •

The Worst of the Worst: Supermax Torture in America
by Lance Tapley

“They beat the shit out of you. They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed. They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”

• • •

Prosecuting Torture Isn’t Politics, It’s Human Rights
by Adam Hosein

“When Dick Cheney insinuated that pretty much everyone who got tortured had it coming, even though the report explicitly identified some innocent victims, he implicitly said that they had already committed the crime of having the wrong face, the wrong religion, and/or the wrong country.”

• • •

The Law Behind Torture
by Itamar Mann

“The United States has a bountiful tradition of abusive interrogation of its own. It did not need Israelis to teach them how to be ‘cruel’ toward detainees. The lesson here is about the legalization of the torture apparatus, and about how forms of justification travel across borders.”

Our weekly themed Reading Lists compile the best of Boston Review’s archive. Previews are delivered to members every Sunday. Become a member to receive them ahead of the crowd.

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