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Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy by Kristian Williams [Notes from a Book Reading]

July 9, 2012

A few months ago, Kristian Williams did a reading of his book, Hurt:Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy, at the BlueStockings Bookstore in New York City. The discussion afterwards led Williams to talk about some points that I found to be a useful in understanding better the difficulties of eliminating torture from our justice system.

Below are some points that Williams raised during the discussion.

1. We tend to think of torture as the outlier in a continuum of violence — the extreme end of an acceptable approach to police conduct. Therefore when torture is discussed, it’s seen as a product of an over-zealous cop or military personnel. The continuum of violence itself, however,  is accepted as necessary policy for both the police and military.

Because of this, we allow a great deal of leniency when it comes to violence from the police.

2. Torture techniques have evolved over the decades.

To a large degree, the continuation of torture requires public approval. The police and state heavily rely on public opinion and sentiment to carry out violence. Because of this torture techniques have evolved as to not leave behind any visible physical evidence of torture on the body. For example, standing for days or using stress/pressure points in the body to induce pain.

It is far easier to garner public sympathy for someone who is scarred and bloody as opposed to someone who does not have any visible marks of torture. However, this does not mean that the torture is any less demeaning, painful, damaging and violent.

One of the things that has been accomplished by the “human rights industrial complex” is that visible scarring of prisoners are no longer as common as they used to be.

[My addition: Public sentiment or public sympathy is an easily pacified thing. 

How does this emerging method of torture connect to increased uses of sexual violence and humiliation as a method of torture?]  

3. Cop shows and police genre television (and our own myth-making) has helped push the idea that the police find clues, interview people and detect! However, this is not really true. The police heavily rely on the public to both capture criminals and to attend to violence.

More information about the book here.

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