The Fall and Rise of Torture Across Time and Space

Here’s the abstract from an interesting article* on the history of the use of torture by Christopher Einol. I think we’ll read this near the end of the semester. (The subject of the illustration is water-boarding (about which the current US Attorney General does not know whether it is torture or not) during the Spanish Inquisition.)

water_torture.jpgTorture was formally abolished by European governments in the 19th century, and the actual practice of torture decreased as well during that period. In the 20th century, however, torture became much more common. None of the theories that explain the reduction of torture in the 19th century can explain its resurgence in the 20th. This article argues that the use of torture follows the same patterns in contemporary times as it has in earlier historical periods. Torture is most commonly used against people who are not full members of a society, such as slaves, foreigners, prisoners of war, and members of racial, ethnic, and religious outsider groups. Torture is used less often against citizens, and is only used in cases of extremely serious crimes, such as treason. Two general 20th-century historical trends have caused torture to become more common. First, an increase in the number and severity of wars has caused an increase of torture against enemy guerrillas and partisans, prisoners of war, and conquered civilian populations. Second, changes in the nature of sovereignty have caused an expansion in the definition of acts constituting treason.

* CHRISTOPHER J. EINOLF, “The Fall and Rise of Torture: A Comparative
and Historical Analysis”, Sociological Theory 25:2 June 2007. You should have access to the article if you are on campus.

3 thoughts on “The Fall and Rise of Torture Across Time and Space”

  1. Well, the answer to your question is complex, but I’ll make two points. First, “in theory” all were equal. Second, even those who, in theory, are equal can lose that status very quickly even they are viewed as having committed treasonous acts. In many (most?) Communist countries the authorities used a very expansive definition of treasonous activity.

  2. Most of this makes sense to me; the article doesn’t seem to explain the prevalence of torture in Communist countries where all comrades are supposed to be completely equal. Wouldn’t there be theoretically no outgroups in communist ocuntries?

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