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Torture and Taboo: On Elaine Scarry

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We are disturbed about torture—yet again. What incest was for Oedipus and his Greek audience, torture is for us: the polluting stink that incites outrage and demands expiation. Even before its release in December, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11, was engulfed in a controversy over several scenes that seem to show that torture is effective. Three members of the Senate released a highly unusual statement, insisting that in its representation of torture, the film should have clearly condemned and rejected the practice. In a note to his staff, Michael Morell, the acting director of the CIA, worried that the film suggested in too simplistic a way that torture was instrumental in locating our quarry. (He left open the question of whether torture ever works.) On the News Desk blog of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer—whose investigative reporting for that magazine on the CIA’s policy of extraordinary renditions, “black site” prisons and the brutal interrogation of terrorism suspects did so much to spark the current debate on torture—took especially angry exception, writing that if Bigelow “were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.” Mayer contends that Zero Dark Thirty not only falsifies history; it also disturbs a long-settled consensus that torture never produces useful intelligence and, for the sake of a Hollywood buck, risks a return to the ethically unthinkable. “Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?” Mayer asked. It was a rhetorical question.

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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Torture is not just wrong or even criminal. It is taboo, a practice that marks the boundary between a community and what it treats as unconscionably reprobate or uncommonly terrifying. A taboo, wrote Sigmund Freud, glossing the Polynesian origins of the term, involves “holy dread” and “a sense of something unapproachable.” A taboo also reveals as much about those who enforce it as those who violate it, for a taboo reflects the overall value system that depends on its enforcement. But has torture, especially when practiced in defense of the nation, always seemed so scandalous? 

As much as right-thinking journalists and politicians might like to presume otherwise, the question is far from rhetorical. Mayer argues that the problem with Bigelow’s depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty “is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it.” Yet in her own justly celebrated journalism unveiling the Bush administration’s torture memos and honoring those who refused on principle to endorse such vile tactics, Mayer misrepresented a complicated history. Her work depends on the assumption that the taboo against torture has been a stable norm for a very long time. No one had ever done what John Yoo did when he worked for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush White House, Mayer wrote. But was that because the US government had never tortured before and needed legal cover to do so for the first time? Or was it because it had done so repeatedly, from the Philippines to Vietnam, but had never needed to bend the rules to do so? Though it should provide Yoo no comfort, the truth is that war crimes were far worse in the American past, and his very acts suggested how novel and powerful the taboo on torture had become. “This country has in the past faced other mortal enemies, equally if not more threatening, without endangering its moral authority,” Mayer declared in the introduction to The Dark Side (2008), a compilation of her classic pieces on the use of torture during the “war on terror.” Who exactly is distorting history?

* * *

The truth is that it took a very long time, morally speaking, for people here and abroad to mobilize against torture. Tobias Kelly’s This Side of Silence (2011) calmly explains some of the factors underlying the shift in attitude that occurred a few decades ago. A crucial date is 1973, when the nongovernmental activists of Amnesty International, expanding their remit of challenging political imprisonment to include a campaign against torture, gave the norm a new global standing that continues to have wide resonance today. Using standard techniques of moral regulation—this time for the good—Amnesty succeeded in making the state’s infliction of extreme physical pain anathema, though it was once a customary part of most cultures, an all-too-typical practice in the difficult search for truth or, in modern times, a surprisingly acceptable tool of governance, even in “enlightened” regimes.

Torture deployed for the sake of extracting evidence from witnesses became increasingly unacceptable after the Renaissance, and during the Enlightenment Voltaire and others assailed its use by the state. Yet the distaste for torture was always intermittent, especially among citizens enjoined by their enlightened states to be decent at home, but who were willing to tolerate a different standard abroad, as well as during wartime. Torture was also banned in the written regulations around warfare between civilized states, which were sometimes taken to heart by the combatants—but the same was not true in colonial warfare, or in colonial rule.

In 1948, torture was stigmatized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when the memory of Nazi perfidy was still vivid. But as Kelly shows, the article on torture almost didn’t make it into the text, and torture remained widespread. If a taboo emerged, it was only to the point that most citizens of the Cold War era wanted to avert their gaze from torture rather than mobilize to stop it; and, as Darius Rejali suggested in Torture and Democracy (2007), their governments entered a pact with them by keeping the violence secret and leaving no marks so as to keep it “clean.”

Against this background, Amnesty hewed out a new global consensus. Opening its campaign against torture with high-profile events on both sides of the Atlantic, it gathered thousands of signatures on its petitions. Soliciting the testimony of survivors, the group published reports on how torture remained a widespread and ingrained practice, lifting the cloak of secrecy and provoking government denials. Amnesty co-founder Seán MacBride won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for the campaign, and the organization won its own Nobel three years later. All in all, it was one of the most successful exercises in moral consciousness-raising ever.

It occurred in connection with other causes. Decades after World War II, former democratic governments in places like Brazil, Greece and Chile fell to dictatorships, and reports of torture against political enemies soon followed. It was not so much that the use of torture was on the rise (though Amnesty insisted it was). Instead, it seemed as if the laws of perpetual improvement were being glaringly violated, as countries with democratic traditions—even the birthplace of democracy itself—became the setting for this outmoded and barbaric practice. As Kelly reports, at just this moment British counterterrorism practices in Northern Ireland were also attracting novel scrutiny. British officials were irritated to discover that the interrogation techniques they had used in their policing and counterinsurgency operations in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Brunei and Aden without a second thought—and without provoking any public scandal—were suddenly being greeted with outrage.

In any event, by 1973 decolonization was largely over. Though, as Kelly says, the concern of Western citizens was primarily mobilized by instances of torture in Europe, or by its use against Latin Americans of European descent, they were now also less likely to avert their gaze from global violence or consider it part of the price of doing business. At this moment, their countries were either leaving their former colonies or had already gone. It may seem cynical to imply that it was this retreat from the violence of imperial rule that suddenly made torture beyond the pale for Westerners, especially if others were perpetrating it. But there is no other way to make sense of the timing of the norm’s global emergence. The political theorist Judith Shklar responded to Amnesty’s activism by calling physical cruelty “the worst thing we can do.” The truth seems to be that torture acquired its insidious glamour as the worst thing they can do—once Western violence was done, and the places it had shaped for so long now looked like scenes of indigenous misrule.

As for Americans, in 1973 their government had just signed a peace treaty with Vietnam, which had important repercussions for the origins of human rights politics in the United States. (The historian Barbara Keys discusses this history in a brilliant and unsettling book coming in the fall from Harvard University Press, Reclaiming American Virtue.)  Revelations that torture was being perpetrated by a former client state made the most difference: the South Vietnamese kept political prisoners in the “tiger cages” of Con Son Island until the glare of their exposure by the press grew too lurid (and the regime fell to communists). Amnesty’s campaign eventually led to the UN’s adoption of the Convention Against Torture, which even the United States, forever bridling against potential infringements on its sovereignty, ratified in 1988. 

These interacting causes instruct but also distract. Alone and together, they do not fully account for the singular horror of torture that has seized our moral attention, especially since 9/11 and the Abu Ghraib revelations. After all, our most recent controversy over torture involves our own state and how aggressive its military and civilian branches can be in their “war on terror.”  Establishing the continuity of present acts of torture with those from the past, as Laleh Khalili does in her startling new book Time in the Shadows (2012), is a pressing matter, but so too is tracing the emergence of the attitude that torture is a singular abomination and banning it our highest task.

Behind all these factors for the shift in our contemporary moral consciousness lurks a deeper reason why torture has become a signature evil like no other. When evil threatens, taboos are obeyed rather than examined. In our own era, however, torture’s incidence has been on the decline (the “war on terror” notwithstanding). And so it could be that our continuing preoccupation with the subject is one more symptom of an exhausted political utopianism, a loss of faith in our ability to do more than keep evil—including our own—at bay.

* * *

In the summer of 1977, a young literary critic traveled to London to read Amnesty’s accounts of torture. The book that emerged from the trip, The Body in Pain (1985), made its author, Elaine Scarry, now a Harvard professor, our intellectual guide, and nearly thirty years on she remains a valuable proxy for our ethical perspective. According to Scarry, “there may be no human event that is as without defense as torture.”

In a certain way, Scarry’s career has paralleled that of the taboo itself. When The Body in Pain appeared, accompanied by breathless endorsements from Susan Sontag and others and garnering stellar reviews in the national press, it instantly became a canonical book. Scarry, then unknown, found herself immediately elevated to the empyrean for her moral intensity and weird charisma. If torture has become our execration, Scarry benefits from something like a sacred aura: that a few notable skeptics—such as Shklar and the philosopher Peter Singer—dared to call out her book for beginner’s incompetence, unverifiable assertion and sheer charlatanry only helped to confirm her status.

Scarry’s writings are simply bizarre—albeit so strange as to disarm criticism. Her first book, like all her succeeding ones, requires the suspension of disbelief that intense visions always do, as Scarry goes her own way and asks you to follow her, with little rational justification, in frequently bewildering directions. Opening with a meditation on Amnesty’s torture reports, The Body in Pain slowly and shockingly gives way to a homespun metaphysics of demiurgic human creativity. 

Pain, Scarry announces, is inexpressible. “English,” she quotes Virginia Woolf saying, “which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.” The reason, Scarry hypothesizes, is that pain, though it has a cause, has no object; the eye sees something, the ear hears something, the finger touches something, but the body in anguish merely aches. In its most perfect epitome, which is torture, the infliction of pain is an act of appropriation for the sake of empowerment. In torture, language is used perversely to convert the victim’s torment into the interrogator’s fraudulent mastery. Torturers make use of the escalating pain they mete out to build their—and their regimes’—immoral power.

Scarry did not dwell on torture exclusively; instead, she made the body in pain—physical distress of any sort—the foundation of human creativity. Everyone, from the humblest artisan to the most gifted novelist, creates in response to bodily suffering; unlike the appropriation enacted by torture, creation compensates or substitutes for pain. Though torturers destroy or “unmake” the world, pain serves constructively—in texts ranging from the Bible to Karl Marx—as that against which creation is asserted and conducted, whether in the simplest tool or the grandest masterpiece. The Bible, Scarry says, is a series of scenes of injuring, but it underpins the imagination of God himself and the new world he will bring about, while Marx rooted his account of labor’s creativity in physical suffering. The pain of labor materializes in objects of creation. In this way, torture is the inverted likeness of the imagination; where the one destroys, the other fashions.

Scarry’s brief inaugural meditation on “savage” torture, the most famous pages she has ever written, is a pivotal moment in our recent cultural history. Like a secular piece of scripture, The Body in Pain, published during the time when the Convention Against Torture was moving from adoption by the United Nations to global ratification, made what would otherwise seem an inexplicable human evil the center of a vivid system of world-historical meaning. What also made the account famous was that it broke unceremoniously with the critical pieties of its day. Scarry was a new system-builder in an age of “postmodern” theory. Instead of treating the body as an amalgam of conflicting social codes, she insisted that it is a palpable, incontestable reality in response to whose suffering all of human culture is erected. As for the term “deconstruct,” Scarry did use it—but not as the postmodernists did. For them, it named the practice of overturning oppositions in a discourse; for Scarry, it only referred to what torturers do in inflicting pain.

Further, Scarry’s uncomplicated belief in the power of creation to change our lives and save—no, even make—the world seemed, for those who didn’t find it sophomoric, to be genius. Movingly defending beauty and treating it as a moral resource, Scarry broke with a critical culture of suspicion that unmasked art as ideology, instead offering a touchingly naïve appeal to the true, the good and the beautiful as if it were an act of unexampled sophistication. (Missing from her account of Marx is the critique of ideology, along with the class struggle and violent revolution.) And it worked, precisely because literary critics had followed fashion so far as to lose touch with what had always been the aesthetic basis of their role.

* * *

Even so, placing torture first, as Scarry did on the basis of her Amnesty documents, proved fateful. In the best meditation on Scarry’s critical universe, fellow literary critic Geoffrey Galt Harpham observed that its “thickly affective atmosphere of intelligent compassion, of tender regard for the vulnerable human being,” came linked, as if in reaction to the grisly particularities of torture, to “a committed moral optimism that was jarringly discordant with the witty and sophisticated disenchantment prevalent then and now.” Yet between the nether pole of torture and the high summit of creation, a crucial piece of terrain is missing in Scarry’s thought: the place where the real politics of workaday institutions—the very ones that both cause torture and can avert it—happen. Indeed, how Scarry moved from an intense concern with torture to an aestheticism of creation seems as illustrative of a certain popular moral stance today as it is dubious. Beyond Amnesty’s fact-finding, which she clearly prizes, Scarry speaks often of the need for political leaders to obey the law and for democracies to govern themselves. But when it comes to what the law should say, there are only vague statements. She focuses attention on a specific evil but leaves the good abstract.

Prescriptions are offered in On Beauty and Being Just (1999), a fascinating essay in which Scarry proposes an ideal of symmetry in social relations that an attention to beauty might offer. But perhaps because of her focus on bodies being tortured, bodies in pain—to which she can offer only the vague antidote of creation—the role of political institutions and the choice among them is left out. Though Judith Shklar organized her political theory around cruelty too, shortly before her death she indicted Scarry, in a withering review in the London Review of Books, for treating torture as a matter of “isolating individuals [who] do something in a vacuum.” Scarry has never seen torture (or creativity, for that matter) as a concrete social and political event linked to specific institutions.

In her scattered remarks on justice, Scarry interprets the politics of the social contract as a collective commitment not to injure. Though not fully wrong, this definition adheres to the most basic and limited purposes of collective political enterprise. In her polarized universe, in which ugly violence meets beautiful flowers, Scarry is Thomas Hobbes plus John Ruskin. The conjunction of pain and beauty leaves open all that humanity has learned, at least since Hobbes’s pessimistic reaction to the English Civil War, about the possibility of solidarity in and through political fellowship, and the need to experiment with institutions to achieve it. To her credit, Scarry concluded The Body in Pain hopeful that it would “enable us to recognize more quickly what is happening not only in large-scale emergencies like torture or war but in other long-standing dilemmas, such as the inequity of material distribution.” But it is not surprising that her book has done so much better in attempting to focus our taboos on one sort of thing rather than another. In Harpham’s estimation, Scarry, while utterly idiosyncratic, is also “a representative figure of the life of the mind in a time of trauma.”

Politics involves comparing always dirty regimes and seeking better alternatives, and the absence of this sphere is what is most questionable about Scarry’s universe. That we focus on torture so single-mindedly—as if the institutional contexts for it and the institutional sequels to it were not more important—is due to historical experiences that, because they are the conditions of Scarry’s criticism, may escape her gaze.

* * *

One influential public figure who found The Body in Pain compelling was the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who died six years ago. As the repeated references to Scarry’s “remarkable” inquiry in his landmark book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) show, Rorty interpreted her argument to mean that torture is bad not so much because of the bodily pain it causes its victims, but instead because of the irremediable humiliation it forces on them. “The worst thing you can do to somebody,” Rorty affirmed, “is not to make her scream in agony but to use that agony in such a way that even when the agony is over, she cannot reconstitute herself.” Torture, in this view, is the summum malum.

In his own work, Rorty was primarily interested in figuring out what it would mean to leave the philosophical tradition behind, scrapping its search for some deep foundation that grounds all knowledge and ethics. But he was more concerned with the contingencies of private life as he struggled to preserve familiar liberal beliefs in personal freedom in the context of a moral theory lacking absolutes. He praised literary artists, together with the earlier philosophers he conscripted for his cause (from American pragmatists like John Dewey to European existentialists like Friedrich Nietzsche), to argue that there is no longer anything to govern our private self-creation—especially not a Platonic reality or higher authority to which creativity must conform. The goal of life for citizens of liberal democracies is to be personally interesting. In The Body in Pain, Scarry had not radically privatized the role of creativity; but Rorty did, relying on her account of torture to define the purpose of the public realm for his type of stay-at-home poet.

For Rorty, the highest—indeed, sole—goal of public institutions is to keep evil at bay for the sake of private self-creation. We should divide our libraries in two, he proposed: “books which help us become autonomous” and “books which help us become less cruel.” And torture, in Scarry’s rendition, served him as the exemplar for how the politics of the public realm could go awry and infringe on private artistry by destroying self-creation. Strikingly, Rorty went so far as to redefine “solidarity” in terms of torture: solidarity is “the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation.” Once we see that we are all potential victims of torture, in other words, we will overcome our petty divisions for the sake of protecting our bodies from pain.

In two extraordinary (and extraordinarily flawed) chapters, Rorty turned to literature to illustrate the overwhelming political importance of cruelty and torture. He focuses on the last part of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the cunning Inner Party member O’Brien tortures the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, to gain his compliance. Folded into Rorty’s interpretation of the novel is an attack on the literary critic Raymond Williams, who had dismissed the last part of 1984 on the grounds that Orwell rejected torture so strenuously that he left politics behind. Orwell’s mistake, Williams insisted, was to make torture (and the power to humiliate in general) so crucial a concern; by doing so, Orwell tacitly assumed that power itself is evil and the best thing one could do was to avoid its workings, especially when it reached the extremity of torture. One could denounce torture, Williams countered, without ceasing to concern oneself with what sort of regime was perpetrating it and what sort of politics should replace it. To a Marxist like Williams, or a social democrat, or even a less reactive liberal, the limitation of Orwell’s stance—indenturing the imagination to the specter of “endless torture,” on the assumption that torture is the inescapable face of power—was its denial that power and imagination are necessary for creating a good regime. Ultimately, what matters is the sort of social life that power and imagination can bring about, not just whether torture is averted.

Rorty, however, confined the imagination to the private sphere, restricting its use in public life to helping one see how inimical to others cruelty can be. Torture became the new polestar of politics, Rorty insists, precisely because the dream of “a better world” that people had mobilized around and fought brutal hot and cold wars over in the twentieth century at some point stopped making sense. (The wars contributed to that.) “We cannot tell ourselves a story about how to get from the actual present to such a future,” he contends. “This inability to imagine how to get from here to there is a matter neither of loss of moral resolve nor of theoretical superficiality, self-deception, or self-betrayal. It is not something we can remedy…. It is just the way things happen to have fallen out…. This bad news remains the great intransigent fact of contemporary political speculation.”

Rorty’s argument discloses some of the hidden assumptions of Scarry’s position. Scarry never really defended the single-mindedness of making Amnesty’s position on torture her polestar. Rorty did so for her—and us. The bad news of torture is very bad in a world where there is worse news: political hopelessness. For Rorty, idealism in public affairs isn’t possible in the foreseeable future, so our world of hierarchy and suffering just has to be accepted, with torture—which Orwell had shown insidiously at work even in the grandest effort to remedy hierarchy and suffering—the only thing that you and I could possibly imagine fixing. True, Rorty was nominally a social democrat (Orwell was too), but placing torture first among public concerns belied this commitment. Torture matters greatly, Rorty writes, in “a globe divided into a rich, free, democratic, selfish, and greedy First World…and a starving, overpopulated, desperate Third World.” This state of affairs may not have been inevitable, but it is unalterable: “We liberals have no plausible large-scale scenario for changing that world.” But while cultivating our private gardens, at least we can condemn torture.

* * *

Leaving aside her quixotic attempt to trace the loss of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 to electromagnetic radiation, an undertaking she was allowed to pursue in three long articles published by The New York Review of Books, it was the hijacking and crashing of planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the dishonorable acts committed during the two wars launched by the United States in their wake, that caused Scarry to move into political commentary in the last decade. Yet her reasoning about torture after 9/11 has remained consistent with the pattern she 
laid down long before.

Scarry’s first effort was characteristically unusual. Comparing the ways that two of the planes on 9/11 crashed, Scarry contends in Who Defended the Country? (2003) that United Flight 93, heading toward Washington, DC, but brought down by its passengers in a field in Pennsylvania, provided a generalizable example of how small, local groups are capable of defending themselves under their own power. It was true, of course, that American Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, demonstrated the unpreparedness of the government and military for the events on that day. But it hardly follows that, as a general rule, ordinary citizens can and should take ”injuring” into their own hands.

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.

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.

* * *

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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