- Paperback: 313 pages
- Publisher: University of California Press (September 3, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0520230396
- ISBN-13: 978-0520230392
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #242,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture 0th Edition
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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.
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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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."
Therefore the normal limits of obedience were dissolved and serving authority became its own reality for one recruit: "Torturing became a job... If the officers ordered you to beat, you beat. If they ordered you to stop, you stopped. You never thought you could do otherwise." Conroy explains how the training of torturers is an exact science designed to project "a positive self-image" and points to a Yale study on the limits of obedience. The experiment illustrated how easily people could ignore responsibility and view themselves as a link in the chain of authority and concluded that "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." Conroy sees this conclusion as informative:
many people are unable to act on their values... even when it is patently clear that they are inflicting harm, relatively few people have the resources to resist authority... in view of the positive reinforcement engendered by a largely satisfied society, it is not difficult to understand how a torturer can hold on to a positive self-image... The British comforted themselves with the rationalization that their methods were nothing compared to the suffering created by the IRA. The Israelis regularly argue that their methods pale in comparison to the torture employed by the Arab states.
Conroy also points to the "infectious" nature of torture: the five techniques used against the hooded men in Ireland had been inflicted on people across the British empire, in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, British Cameroons, Brunei, British Guiana, Aden, Malaysia and the Persian Gulf. The Israeli Justice Moshe Landau, clearly impressed by the British techniques used in Ireland, established guidelines for the application of "moderate physical pressure" on Palestinian prisoners:
Landau cited the decision of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ireland vs. the United Kingdom, the decision that determined that the five techniques were inhuman and degrading but not torture. In the years after the Landau Commission filed its report the GSS and the IDF (the Israeli secret police) had adapted the British methods wholesale
Thus the case of the hooded men, and the European Court's watered down definition of what was done to them by the British state, set an international precedent.
John Conroy met and interviewed the torturers of Palestinians at Beita and Hawara and reported on the trial that exposed the torturers of Andrew Wilson in Chicago. Ted Heath, who was British Prime Minister who during the torture of Irish internees in 1971, refused to be interviewed by the author. The hearings into their case were held in secret in the human rights building in Strasbourg. Crucially, Conroy points out that the 14 volume, 4,500 page transcript of that hearing today remains secret. The democratic government on whose behalf the torture was carried out in 1971 closed ranks in a repeated pattern that continues to this day.
John Conroy raises vital questions about the use of torture in the present and in the future. Importantly, the book acknowledges that torture still happens and it shows how it is still used by governments who have learned from its use in the past. Methods that have filtered down from Ireland and other British colonies have made their way to Palestine and the Palestinian authority's prisons: "The Soviet Union, China, and North Korea provided the inspiration for the British use of the five techniques. The British methods inspired the Israelis. Israeli methods have in turn inspired the Palestinians, who now have their own torturable class in the West Bank and Gaza." Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People is an important book because it shows that torture is not something that happens far away and that it can happen in western democracies. It provides vital information required by anyone who wants to understand the role of torture. As Conroy sums up, "(it) is always easier to see torture in another country than in one's own". As he concludes, there are no happy endings for the victims: "It seems a very small leap to argue that torture is the perfect crime. There are exceptions... but in the vast majority of cases, only the victim pays."