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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Elaine Scarry

Jeff has an interesting post on terrorism and torture today and it reminded me of a book I had seen mentioned a while ago on Fr. Marsh's blog ... The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry

Here's a little of what Wikipedia says of Scarry ...

Elaine Scarry (born 30 June 1946), a professor of English and American Literature and Language, is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her interests include Theory of Representation, the Language of Physical Pain and Structure of Verbal and Material Making in Art, Science and the Law. She is the author of The Body in Pain which is known as a definitive study of pain and inflicting pain. She argues that physical pain leads to destruction and the unmaking of the human world, whereas human creation at the opposite end of the spectrum leads to the making of the world. As a writer and lecturer on civic questions ranging from plane crashes to nuclear weapons to the Patriot Act, Elaine Scarry has become an important public intellectual .....

My own feelings are that torture is wrong, under any circumstances, and also an unreliable source of information, so I was interested in reading more about Scarry, who seems to agree. Here below is a bit from an article on her stance on torture for military purposes from the Chronicle Online - Torture can never be defended as a military necessity, asserts Harvard professor and Iraq war critic Elaine Scarry ...

Talking on "Undoing Democracy: Military Honor and the Rule of Law," at Cornell Law School April 27, Scarry focused on the illegality of torture and the cost to society of defying the accepted rule of law ......

But instead of defending the rule of law, "the U.S. has become neo-absolutist" in violating it, declared Scarry, as evidenced by President George W. Bush's statement that he has the authority to suspend Geneva Conventions rules on torture, and by the subsequent torture of prisoners in U.S. care at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and the deaths by torture of Iraq war prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Those incidents are not aberrations but a "stark line of influence [emanating] from Washington, D.C., as Abu Ghraib documents made clear," said Scarry.

What does suspending the rule of law look like? "It's the image of a frightened, naked man clutching his genitals to protect them from a lunging dog," she said. Permitting such "barbarism" as stripping prisoners and intimidating them with dogs -- which U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield approved for Guantanamo detainees -- led to the practice being exported, intentionally or unintentionally, to Abu Ghraib, Scarry claimed.

"Torture can never be defended on the grounds of military necessity," she said, rejecting arguments by her Harvard law professor colleague Alan Dershowitz that certain circumstances might make torture necessary. "The infamous medical experiments and the murders of Jews, gypsies and other so-called enemies of the state by the Nazis were argued to be of military necessity," she pointed out. But the laws governing warfare view necessity "not as a license to do dastardly deeds but a prohibition ruling out actions not necessary to military success."

Although "the harm from torture cannot be lessened if all the rules were followed," breaking them wantonly suggests a disregard for the rule of law that leads to a complete breakdown of moral values, suggested Scarry. "Can a country that breaks international rules and the rules of its own military fly our flag without flying it falsely?" she asked.

To read more on this subject, check out The Question of Torture, the transcript of a panel discussion held at The New York Public Library, 06/01/05, cosponsored by the Carnegie Council, Live from the New York Public Library, and the New York Review of Books, and participated in by Elaine Scarry, Mark Bowden, Mark Danner, Darius Rejali, Aryeh Neier, and Joel H. Rosenthal.


Blogger Jeff said...

Great links, Crystal. Fascinating debate with Scarry, Danner and Bowden. I'm always looking at the potential of the "slippery slope" when I look at issues like this, which makes some people I argue with frustrated. I do believe, though, that there is an extremely thin veneer, or crust, if you will, bewtween what we consider civilized behavior and barbarism.

7:40 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

that link to the panel discussion came from Wikipedia. It was really informative for me because I didn't know much about the subject.

I thought it was interesting that torure has been shown to be mostly ineffective in gaining reliable information. I agree with the slippery slope idea - as that one panelist said, if you allow even the slightest form of legal torture, everything inevitably starts going to hell.

11:14 PM  

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