The essays in Thomas Hilde's On Torture are all competent, and one of them--Darius Rejali's insightful "Torture Makes the Man" (pp. 165-83)--is a stunner. But for the most part, the voices collected in the volume are utterly unoriginal. This is too bad, because if there's a topic lately that's generated much heat but not a lot of light, it's torture. We're badly in need of deep thought on not only the morality of torture, but also the very definition of it. (This evidenced by the public policy wrangling about what is and what isn't torture. Much of the debate is, admittedly, partisan-driven. But the issue is still a live one.) Moreover, we're likewise badly in need of analyses of what torture does to the identity of victims, perpetrators, and societies that countenance torture as a public policy. Elaine Scarry's magisterial The Body in Pain (1985) was the last attempt to try to make sense of that issue.
But the essays in On Torture don't really step up to the plate. The two big-named contributions by Barbara Ehrenreich and Ariel Dorfman are reprints of earlier publications. While Dorfman's two short pieces are worth re-reading, Ehrenreich's reflection on female Abu Ghraib torturers is still as fluffy as it was when it appeared in 2004. The rest of the essays, especially written for this collection, are interesting but hardly informative. Four of them (written by Rebecca Whittmann, Tzvetan Todorov, Adi Ophir, and Margarita Serje) focus on torture in Nazi Germany, Algeria, Palestine, and Columbia, ground that's already exceedingly well-trodden. Others (written by Carlos Castresana and Michael Hatfield) focus on torture, public policy, and the law, basically reproducing points made by the contributions to Sanford Levinson's earlier Torture: A Collection (2004) or Karen J. Greenberg's The Torture Debate in America (2006). Others (the essays written, for example, by Christopher Arrendondo, Stephanie Athey, Alphonso Lingis, and Eduardo Subirats) hone in on definitional, ethical and human rights issues surrounding torture, covering ground already plowed by the contributors to Kenneth Roth's Torture: A Human Rights Perspective (2005) or William Schulz's excellent The Phenomenon of Torture (2007).
Again: all are competent. But none (excepting Rejali's) offers anything new to the reader already familiar with the pertinent literature. Instead, they repeat well-established truths: for example, torture solicits lots of information but not much truth; torturers are brutalized by what they do; both genders are capable of torturing; torture is a means of controlling dissent; and torture is frequently treated by perpetrators as an unreal game in order to insulate themselves from the horror of what they do.
Two and a half stars.
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This book avoids the usual policy and legal debates on torture and, rather, humanizes the issue of torture, which the books the previous reviewer cites mostly do not. For example, some of the authors in the collection have experienced their subject first-hand. I find the arguments in this book to be original and compelling and the mental imagery stark and unique. It's a very refreshing voice on this difficult subject, but unfortunately continuing practice.