Unspeakable Acts

1556, An illustration from J Damhoudere's 'Criminal Practices' showing a prisoner being interrogated and tortured. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1556, An illustration from J Damhoudere's 'Criminal Practices' showing a prisoner being interrogated and tortured. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


We've known for a long time that torture doesn't work as a way to extract hidden information, but we still do it. A documentary by Philip Coulter based on an interview with Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, author of The Body in Pain, that examines both why we inflict useless pain on our supposed enemies, and what the results are for the victim, the torturer, and the civilization we build.

Torture, the deliberate inflicting of pain, has probably been around for as long as people have been fighting each other, which is to say, forever. We've all seen the classic medieval torture devices -- the rack, the wheel, the thumbscrews -- and there's apparently no limit to the imagination of humans in designing ever-more ingenious methods of inflicting pain.

The Romans believed that slaves had to be tortured to give truthful evidence, and up until a few hundred years ago, torture was an accepted part of the legal process in many countries. By the 18th century, ideas of human rights were starting to change attitudes, and in our own times, torture has largely become legally and morally unacceptable.

So why is torture still around? Why was there torture in civilized nations during the second world war, in Vietnam? Why did Abu Ghraib happen? What fine sleight of hand justifies waterboarding? What is it that makes us want to inflict extreme pain on others?

Participants in the program:

Elaine Scarry,  Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University.

Jim Auld, arrested and tortured by the British in Northern Ireland

Alan Dershowitz, American lawyer, author and political commentator.

Special thanks to WUNC North Carolina Public Radio for their permission to rebroadcast The Story with Dick Gordon.

Reading List:

The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry, published by
Oxford University Press, 1985.

The Abu Ghraib Investigations: The Official Independent Panel and Pentagon, Reports on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq, ed. Steven Strasser. Public Affairs Reports, 2004.

Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture by John Conroy, published by University of  California Press, 2000.

Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and The War on Terror by Mark Danner, published by New York Review Books, 2004.

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Alfred W. McCoy, published by Henry Holt, 2006.

Guantanamo: What The World Should Know by Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray, published by Chelsea Green, 2004.

Torture: A Collection, ed. Sanford Levinson, published by Oxford University Press, 2004.

Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.