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In Cold Blood

John Fanning

Torture, by Donatella Di Cesare, Polity Press, 180 pp, £50, ISBN: 978-1509524365

Along with scapegoating minorities, demonising the press and undermining the judiciary, torture is making a comeback. According to Amnesty International, more than 122 countries tortured people in 2016. In June 2018 a UK parliamentary report has concluded that British spymasters tolerated “the inexcusable mistreatment of terror suspects by the US after the 9/11 attacks”. The extent to which societies which consider themselves civilised collude in this most inhuman behaviour is outlined in Donatella Di Cesare’s Torture. The author is a professor of philosophy at Sapienza University in Rome and has written and lectured extensively on the subject in the past, especially in relation to the Holocaust. Di Cesare has written a short book, but it draws on the work of philosophers from Arendt to Žižek and from a wide range of poets, playwrights and novelists, resulting in a comprehensive account of this slippery subject.

She begins by summarising the long history of official attempts to prohibit torture, from the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1798 all the way up to the UN Convention against Torture in 1984, when it was defined as “any act by which severe pain, whether mental or physical, is inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession”. This important document went on to make it clear that no “exceptional circumstances”, not war, nor political instability nor any other kind of public emergency, could be used as a justification of torture. And yet the practice continues in spite of all these denunciations, with added refinements such as sleep deprivations, waterboarding, spatial-temporal disorientation, sexual violence and psychological torment.

Di Cesare pinpoints 9/11 and the resulting so-called war on terror as a critical turning point in the modern attitude to torture. After 2001, she argues, torture was welcomed into public debate “and for the first time in a democracy it was officially acknowledged that it was taking place”. This was accompanied by the extraordinary American capacity to coin neologisms to evade the brutal reality of what was happening. Torture became “coercive interrogation”, the victim an “unlawful combatant”, while the process was often outsourced offshore to locations like Guantánamo Bay and others. In the aftermath of 9/11 a number of public intellectuals including, Martha Nussbaum and Michael Ignatieff, are quoted trying to come to terms with the possibility that torture might have to be considered in the type of extreme circumstances characterised by twenty-first century jihadist terror attacks. Di Cesare is admirably steadfast in her refusal to countenance any equivocation on the matter, arguing that we can never be sure we have the right person, that confessions obtained under torture are notoriously unreliable, but above all that because the goal of torture is to annihilate the humanity of the victim we annihilate our own humanity by engaging in the process: “torture has the acrid and repugnant smell of a return to a state of nature and the law of the jungle ‑ the institutionalisation of torture contradicts the very purpose of the democratic state”.

The second part of the book deals with the phenomenology of torture by examining in detail specific examples of the practice in action, arguing that it is more useful to describe the phenomenon than define it. The most harrowing account comes from an essay by Jean Améry, a member of a small Belgian resistance group captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and subjected to horrific torture. Améry’s capacity for introspection under extreme pain gives his testimony unusual power and his conclusion that torture is systemic, organised, methodical violence, the equivalent of rape, and that “whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world” is deeply moving.

Di Cesare concludes this section with case histories of four infamous torturers; Tomás de Torquemada from the Spanish Inquisition, French general Paul Aussaresses, who implemented a programme of torture during the Algerian war of independence, Kaing Guek Eav from the Khmer Rouge and Adolfo Scilingo, who organised the torture and disappearance of so many prisoners during the Argentinian dictatorship from 1976 to1983. Although very different men, operating in very different times, a number of common characteristics emerge. All were obsessed with order, purification and bureaucratic tidiness. The description of Kaing as a modest man with the mind of a mathematician and a fixation for order could apply to any of them; Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” comes to mind. This section concludes with a comment from Paul Ricoeur reminding us that the physical aspects of torture serve to mask its true nature; the destruction of the mind, the devastation of the personality by way of loss of self ‑ a humiliation sometimes worse than death.

The final section opens with an account of the Italian journalist Giulio Regeni, who was the victim of extreme violence by the Egyptian regime in 2016. Tortured for days to discover his contacts in the trade union movement, he suffered broken teeth, swellings, burning, broken bones, fibulas reduced to mush and the alphabet carved with a sharp blade on his body, which later was found only by accident after it had been casually dumped in woodland. Regeni was unable to leave any record or comment on his treatment but another journalist, Rudolfo J Walsh, who was killed by the Argentinian police in 1977, wrote a powerful piece of journalism before he died: :by repeatedly succumbing to the argument that the end of killing guerrillas justifies all your means, you have arrived at a form of absolute, metaphysical torture  that is unbounded by time: the original goal of obtaining information has been lost in the disturbed minds of those inflicting the torture”. This represents the core of Di Cesare’s argument: the most lasting effect of torture is the damage inflicted on both the tortured and the torturers. She concludes by agreeing with the comment that although there may be no country in the world in which torture is part of the law there are very few in which it isn’t practised and that if torture’s most effective accomplice is silence the most effective deterrent is continued vigilance in exposing and publicising it whenever it occurs. This is especially needed now as we appear to have embarked on another “low dishonest decade”. We would do well not just to remind ourselves of what Louis MacNeice wrote at the end of the last one but to act on his advice:

The nicest people have always been the least
Apt to solidarity or alignment
But all of them must now align against the beast
That prowls at every door and barks in every headline.


John Fanning lectures on Branding and Marketing Communications at the Smurfit Business school.



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