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Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture Paperback – September 3, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0520230392 ISBN-10: 0520230396 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 313 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (September 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520230396
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520230392
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #643,494 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

How is it that otherwise normal people can become part of the institutionalized practice of torture? That's the question driving this unusual, extremely well-reported book. At the Chicago Reader, Conroy spent years reporting on the kind of torture that happens not in exotic locales but in his own backyard--in Chicago's police precincts. Curious and troubled by what he found, he decided to explore the ordinariness of brutality through three separate incidents of torture--in Israel, Ireland and Chicago. He investigates the "five torture techniques" (hooding, noise bombardment, food deprivation, sleep deprivation and forced standing against a wall) inflicted on 12 Irish prisoners in 1971; a late 1980s round-up on the West Bank of Palestinians, who were bound, gagged and beaten; and Chicago's notorious John Burge case, in which police officers systematically beat and electrocuted (on the head, chest and genitals) a man suspected (and later convicted) of killing a police officer. In all three cases, although the torture was well documented, little or no punishment was handed down. Conroy does an excellent job reconstructing these events in a manner that reveals the presence of torture in everyday society. He's more a reporter than a critic, however; his brief attempt to theorize on why ordinary people become either torturers or silent witnesses to torture rehashes already well-known studies and fails to offer any new insights. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In this exhaustively researched book, the author of Belfast Diary interviews torturers, torture victims, and government officials from such diverse locations as Israel, Northern Ireland, and a Chicago police interrogation room, focusing on how torture is performed and why. The descriptions of torture are brutal and hair-raising, but even its victims admit that the pain involved is a means to a psychological end. The long-standing hatred between the IRA and the British government in Northern Ireland is intensified through these tales; in Israel, a cruel torture ring is virtually exonerated by a high court; and in Chicago, outrage over apparently racially biased police brutality of suspects is short-lived, with much of the public "not aroused" by the injustices therein. Conroy's journalistic style meshes perfectly with the material, often cold-blooded and antiseptic with a hint of blood-curdling mayhem beneath the surface, and one of Conroy's main points--that the unspeakable evil that ordinary men do as torturers is simply a means to an end--is positively bone chilling. Joe Collins --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Gunia VINE VOICE on August 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
It is diffucult to write a book as broad as this, but I hope this review helps you to get a better understanding of what this book is about. To put it simply, Conroy examines the dynamics of torture: how it is done, what kind of person tortures others and why, and what is the affect of torture on the person actually tortured. Conway uses an excellent method of making his points in that he decides on an aspect of torture he wants to examine (e.g. the effect of torture on the tortured), gives details of three actual torture event (always Belfast IRAs tortured by British, Palastinians tortured by the Israeli army, and a black cop-killer tortured by Chicago police), then draws conclusions from them. This is not to say that he limits himself and his studies to these three events; far from it. Conroy interviews victims from these tortures and many others. One of the most intersting aspects of the book is when Conroy examines the question of who tortures. He interviews several persons who tortured (including members of South American armies, a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, a British agent in Africa, etc.) and determined that they have the remarkable ability to rationalize what they have done. Conroy even admits that the majority of the torturers are cordial, likable people. He then presents, through describing scientific experiments that all people have the ability to torture, because people have the ability to rationalize actions that they consider inconsistant with their general opininos of themselves. I could go on as Conroy draws several fascinating conclusions about various aspects of torture. However, one aspect of this book that this reader had problems with concerns Conroy's handling of the Chicago Police aspect of this book.Read more ›
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Deaglán Ó Donghaile on May 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People by John Conroy
In 1975 the United Nations defined torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons...Torture constitutes an aggravated and deliberate form of cruel , inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." However, as John Conroy points out in his important new study of torture, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, "the UN definition... has proved to be not so easily interpreted in court. When does pain or suffering become 'severe'?" he asks, and how do we define "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment?
This study of torture examines its practice in Ireland, Palestine and the United States, with reference to its history and to its continuing effects upon its victims and asks "what kind of person tortures another human being?" It answers this by examining the professionalisation of torture and its use as a political tool. "It became a function," he was told by a former Rhodesian torturer, "It became a part of the job. It became standard operating procedure." Conroy describes how the Greek secret police tortured recruits in order to make torturers out of them, making it easier for the torturers to dehumanize their own victims and to rationalize what they themselves were doing:
"The isolation of the recruits eliminated external points of view that might interfere with the indoctrination.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan S. on January 18, 2006
Format: Paperback
Most of this book examines three case studies, from numerous different angles, unveiling the mentality of torturer and tortured alike. The breaking up of the three cases into non-sequential sections aids readability a bit, and the whole tone of the writing is very collected and non-sensational. It does a great job of pointing out not only the details of the individual cases, but the importance of those tortures as events for the societies involved.

It's refreshing that Conroy puts focus on first world torturers, and forces us to consider that so-called civilized societies can produce monsters just as starved, desperate nations can. And it suggest that a person can be a monster one day, and a normal, caring human being the next- it forces us to examine the importance of context, the universal susceptibility of humanity to cruelty, and the significance of governmental authority in converting individuals into torturers and back again.

Conroy also spends a few chapters explaining the history of torture, the trends that arise, and the elements where people are just unpredictable, and torture occurs in ways and places you wouldn't expect. Sadly, torture seems to be a major driving force in society, and in law, through most of mankind's history. Conroy also gives away the tricks torturers use to inflict maximum suffering with minimum risk to themselves, often using techniques that horribly scar the mind while making no changes to the body. This may lead you to evaluate current news stories differently.

I must say, though, I've read numerous books about war crimes, tyrants and acts of slaughter without difficulty, but this actually was difficult to read at times.
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