Fighting “terrorism” with torture

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.326.7393.773 (Published 12 April 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:773

Torture is a form of terrorism: there are no justifications for it

  1. Derek Summerfield, honorary senior lecturer (derek.summerfield@slam.nhs.uk)
  1. Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London SE5 8AP

    In the middle ages in Europe torture drew distinction from its association with confessed truth, repentance, and salvation, yet by 1874 Victor Hugo could write “torture has ceased to exist.” But torture was always likely to outlive its obituarists, and Amnesty International has regularly recorded its use in more than half the nations on earth. Is “the war on terrorism” again legitimising torture as it was in the middle ages?

    The accounts of torture victims are horrifying enough but at least these victims survived: Primo Levi reminded us in The Drowned and the Saved that the public record is denuded of the accounts of the drowned.1 In recent years, reflecting the authority imputed to instrumental reasoning and medical arguments, the anti-torture movement has publicised the physical or mental injuries that can result from torture. However, the ordinary citizen does not regard torture as repugnant because it may have medical consequences, but because its use (typically by the state against its own citizens) seems so extreme a violation of the collective values and morality that hold a social fabric together. Indeed the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen points out that torture, political imprisonment, and assassinations seem more shocking and “wrong” than the failure of states to provide basic means …

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