By Sanford Levinson
Oxford University Press,
2004, 305 pp., $29.95
Torture: A Collection brings together leading lawyers, political theorists, social scientists, and public intellectuals – among them are Ariel Dorfman, Alan Dershowitz, Elaine Scarry, Judge Richard A. Posner, Michael Walzer, and Jean Bethke Elshtain – to debate the advisability of maintaining the absolute ban on torture – required by the United Nations Convention on Torture that the United States ratified a decade ago – and to reflect on what it says about our societies if we do – or do not – adhere to it in all circumstances. Because of the absolute ban on torture, much turns on how it is defined. Are "cruel and inhumane" practices that result in profound physical or mental discomfort tolerable so long as they do not meet some definition of "torture," such as the imposition of "excruciating" pain? And how much "transparency" do we really want with regard to interrogation practices? Is "don't ask, don't tell" an acceptable response to those who concern themselves about these practices? Addressing these questions and more, this book tackles one of the most controversial issues that we face today.
Sanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at The University of Texas School of Law. He is the author of Wrestling with Diversity, Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies, and Constitutional Faith.
"What's most striking about these essays is that despite their abstract and
theoretical content, they generally do not contradict the depiction of actual
interrogators… The wall between the liberal campus and a conservative,
utilitarian-minded military breaks down because the questions are so serious
that few of this book's contributors want to engage in polemics, and few
– to their credit – ever seem completely comfortable with their
–The New York Times
"[M]any of the prominent lawyers, philosophers, political scientists and
other thinkers contributing to this provocative yet sober collection
acknowledge that torture can be an acceptable option in an extreme situation,
such as the interrogation of a captured terrorist who has knowledge of a
'ticking bomb.' … [T]he final section is a thought-provoking debate
among Alan Dershowitz, Elaine Scarry, Judge Richard Posner and Rich Weisberg
regarding the aftermath of 9/11."
"Running through this volume, however, is a furtive but urgent consensus that
even if torture has, after September 11, become more thinkable, the ban on it
in policy and law must remain; it must as Levinson says, be 'unequivocally
and absolutely forbidden by the law of civilized nations.'"
–The Chronicle of Higher Education