Not even the U.S. can torture anymore

It wasn't until last year that torture became such a hot topic that it could be the subject of a hit Hollywood movie. Yet before there was “Zero Dark Thirty,” before there was Osama bin Laden or Guantanamo, there was a long history of torture.

Torture has been around since the beginning of civilization, according to George Ryley Scott, who published A History of Torture in London in 1940. It has always been customary, Scott wrote, for society and the state to attempt to justify torture by denying that it is torture at all and by calling it instead a form of punishment. Because of this, he said, the extent to which torture has been used has never been adequately realized.

Writing in 1940, he added that the American public, judges and government knew then that various forms of “third degree” torture were in constant employment by the police for securing confessions, even though the use of it was as much a crime as any of the offenses of the individuals being subjected to it. Torture was used, but no one talked about it.

In contrast, “Zero Dark Thirty” exaggerates the importance of the use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) in the hunt for bin Laden. It presents the waterboarding, sexual humiliation and sleep deprivation used on terrorist suspects as being incredibly cruel yet indispensable and highly effective.

Torture, as Scott noted, is an expression by the state of its authority and autocratic domination. The historical significance of revelations of torture by the U.S. isn’t the fact that the American government was engaging in torture. The historical significance is the way the state is being openly challenged about the use of this form of the expression of its authority and autocratic domination. In short, a country that uses torture but that can’t get away with it anymore is a country that is losing its dominion.

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