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Exploring the US culture of torture

By Ken Macnab - posted Wednesday, 14 March 2007

The word “torture” has for the last two centuries conjured up images of medieval brutality banished by modern enlightenment. Images of dungeons, thumb-screws, straps, hot coals and dripping water, ingenious iron devices for the infliction of physical pain, are well known. As are the Spanish Inquisition under Torquemada (1483-1498), the periodic witch “crazes” facilitated by witch-hunter handbooks such as Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) of 1487, and the atrocities of individuals such as Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476) and Countess Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614). It is generally believed that the Enlightenment, the “Age of Reason”, swept all such irrational uses of torture into the dustbins of history. However, history is never that simple.

Torture was for centuries far more systematic and widespread than the above examples reveal. What John Langbein, in his Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Regime (1977), called “judicial torture”, was a crucial component of all legal systems based on the Roman law inquisitorial system, as part of the process of acquiring “evidence” to satisfy the prevailing “laws of proof” used by the courts. Hence, where ordered by the Judge, “confessions” (which had to be repeated in court within 24 hours) could be obtained by authorised and regulated “torture” and used to convict the accused.

This “jurisprudence of torture” - it was carried out within elaborate rules and procedures - was distinct from the “punishments” then imposed on the “guilty”. Despite the obvious (and repeatedly enunciated) criticism that innocent people were likely to succumb to “the pain and torment” and “confess” to things they never did, this legalised violence persisted for centuries.


It began to decline in the 17th century mainly because of increasing willingness to use critical judicial evaluation of all verifiable evidence to assess innocence or guilt, and evidence gained by torture was subsequently ruled inadmissible in all legal systems genuinely based on respect for human rights.

Moreover, despite the belief in the relegation of torture to the archives, the 20th century witnessed its widespread and systematic practice. Most culpable were the totalitarian regimes between the wars - Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy - but it continued even after the creation of the United Nations and passage of the early international human rights conventions.

In 1972 Amnesty International launched a Campaign for the Abolition of Torture, and published its first Report on Torture in 1973.

By the time of its second major report, Torture in the Eighties (1984), which found that “more than a third of the world's governments have used or tolerate torture or ill-treatment of prisoners”, the UN had passed an anti-torture Declaration and was debating a draft Convention. Adopted by the General Assembly the same year, the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into effect over the next decade as it was signed and or ratified by the vast majority of all states on earth.

But history continues to be far from simple, as Michael Otterman reveals in American Torture: from the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (Melbourne University Press, 2007).

This is an extensively researched study of a controversial topic: the historical evolution of the justifications, research and development, and widespread practice of ill-treatment and torture by the United States and its minions from the end of World War II to the present.


Much of the initial research was done for a 30,000-word Treatise titled “Debility, Dependency and Dread: The Development, Deployment and Defense of American Torture, 1945-2005”, for a Master of Letters (Peace and Conflict Studies) at the University of Sydney. The scholarly standards which characterised the Treatise have been carried through into this book, adding to its quality and persuasiveness.

A wide range of sources has been used throughout and frequently quoted, and an Appendix consisting of the section on “Coercive Techniques” from the CIA's 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual has been included. Lengthy Notes provide chapter and verse for the material used, and a full bibliography details the range and type of sources examined. Indeed, one of the startling revelations of this study is that such a mass of evidence is actually available on “secret” projects, “covert operations” and plainly illegal activities.

It is made abundantly clear in American Torture that the origins of the coercive “preparation” and “interrogation” techniques routinely used in prisons like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay (not to mention secret CIA “black sites” around the world and the prisons of complicit allies within this “gulag”), go back to the early days of the Cold War.

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Michael Otterman, American Torture: from the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (Melbourne University Press, 2007).

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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Michael Otterman's American Torture website

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