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Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry | The Nation

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Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry

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The principle that Scarry champions—the democratic control of self-defense—is laudable. In her published work (and presumably in her long-awaited forthcoming Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom), it informs her especially acerbic criticism of a nuclear weapons regime that operates entirely outside any popular control. But her focus on excessive government, rampant technology and unchecked power leads her to embrace simple slogans like Democracy, Citizenship and Law. She never asks what kinds of democracy, citizenship and law are necessary to combat or contain the world’s O’Briens and Strangeloves.

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Sony Pictures.

Torture and Democracy
By Darius Rejali.
Buy this book

This Side of Silence
Human Rights, Torture, and the Recognition of Cruelty.
By Tobias Kelly.
Buy this book

Time in the Shadows
Confinement in Counterinsurgencies.
By Laleh Khalili.
Buy this book

The Body in Pain
The Making and Unmaking of the World.
By Elaine Scarry.
Buy this book

On Beauty and Being Just
By Elaine Scarry.
Buy this book

Rule of Law, Misrule of Men
By Elaine Scarry.
Buy this book

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
By Richard Rorty.
Buy this book

Who Defended the Country?
By Elaine Scarry.
Buy this book

Thinking in an Emergency
By Elaine Scarry. Buy this book

About the Author

Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the...

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Similarly limited are the essays collected in Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (2010). Scarry responds indignantly to the frenzy of wrongdoing under George W. Bush, from the torture memos to executive overreach, but she directs her ire at the men breaking the laws and spends little time examining how much the laws already permitted them to do, and if they could be changed. Indicting government lawlessness is appropriate and necessary, but aside from proceeding from a conventionally liberal view of what went wrong after 9/11, her essays fail to consider how much needs to be done politically after the torture has been stopped. Putting things generously, Richard Falk wrote in response to Scarry’s post-9/11 writings that, “as with several other intriguing radicalisms, Scarry’s argument recommends a return to a principled conservatism.” His point is that her nostalgia for self-government under law, though extremely basic and useful for various ends, could be a central progressive idea in a lawless age. But for Scarry herself, it actually leads in the opposite direction: to a rather naïve commitment to the panacea of individual self-rule, including the notion that local control of violence is best (for Scarry, the Second Amendment protects this very value). Above all, Scarry’s persistent appeal to the rule of law, as if it were the antidote to “injuring,” ignores the degree to which existing laws permit and condone legitimate and even illegitimate violence. Aside from responding to the exigency of a criminal administration, Scarry’s critque of torture reflects a failure of constructive political imagination in a way that makes her a representative thinker of our time.

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In the end, it doesn’t appear that Scarry ever considered the possibility that foregrounding the issue of torture so urgently could itself be a problem and not a solution. And in this way, too, she is emblematic. In her latest book, Thinking in an Emergency (2011)—published as the inaugural volume in the ambitious and interesting new Amnesty International Global Ethics Series, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah—Scarry considers what sort of citizenship is possible for those confronted by evil. Scarry first used the phrase “thinking in an emergency” in The Body in Pain; in her newest post-9/11 criticism of government overreach, she describes what might happen if citizens simply refused to capitulate under pressure. For better and for worse, the exercise is vintage Scarry. Arresting in its prose, unexpected in its examples, and utterly personal in its arguments, Thinking in an Emergency is also bereft of any interest in the intermediate task of creating and comparing political alternatives.

As the book proceeds, Scarry insists on the importance of habit in sustaining citizen responses to destabilizing events (and the attempts by arrogant leaders to exploit them for more power). Comparing citizenship to a series of activities, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, in which habit figures prominently—paramedics provide a proxy for the beating heart in order to help it resume its repetitious burden—Scarry recommends the force of tacit knowledge as the best defense against emergency. We should be like Benjamin Franklin, she says, who by creatively instilling routines in his day made himself a unique person.  

The ability to think clearly in an emergency is, of course, critical, but so is the ability to think clearly beyond it. Yet, oddly, the theoretician of creativity neglects the fact that imagining and comparing the possible political worlds you and I might inhabit also makes creativity relevant to our collective lives. Tobias Kelly is right when he says that our current concern with torture doesn’t rule out a richer engagement with some less reactive and more constructive political agenda. “The legal recognition of individual suffering may be just one goal among many, one way in which people may try to mobilize politically,” he writes in This Side of Silence. “Wider ethical and political concerns can remain.” Yet this claim, while true in theory, has proven false in our practice: we have erected a taboo around torture even as our collective solidarity has faltered. These two events are not connected by necessity, but that does not mean they are easy to separate. At the very least, no one has figured out how to broaden the prohibition against the suffering caused by torture to include the suffering caused by a global inequality of wealth and power. Indeed, in some respects, we have achieved consensus denouncing the one only by averting our gaze from the other.

As a result of history and experience, we have gained the unprecedented ability to mobilize public opinion, nationally and globally, against leaders and regimes that take the low road, even as we’ve lost our collective ability to imagine any higher road for ourselves, whether in our own states or as a global community. Taboos empower, taboos paralyze. In a world where stopping torture should be a first step and not our only hope, we cannot be satisfied with a vision of creativity that is excessively abstract, entirely private and resolutely apolitical, any more than we can allow the worst that our governments have done to continue to distract us from the task of imagining and enacting the best we can make them do after the emergency is over.

David Cole reports that fifty-four nations have been implicated in a CIA torture scheme.

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