Understanding Torture

Law, Violence, and Political Identity
John T. Parry


Prohibiting torture will not end it. In Understanding Torture, John T. Parry explains that torture is already a normal part of the state coercive apparatus. Torture is about dominating the victim for a variety of purposes, including public order; control of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; and—critically—domination for the sake of domination. Seen in this way, Abu Ghraib sits on a continuum with contemporary police violence in U.S. cities; violent repression of racial minorities throughout U.S. history; and the exercise of power in a variety of political, social, and interpersonal contacts. Creating a separate category for an intentionally narrow set of practices labeled and banned as torture, Parry argues, serves to normalize and legitimate the remaining practices that are "not torture." Consequently, we must question the hope that law can play an important role in regulating state violence.

No one who reads this book can fail to understand the centrality of torture in modern law, politics, and governance.

John T. Parry is Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School.

Praise / Awards

  • "John Parry's Understanding Torture is an important contribution to our understanding of how torture fits within the practices and beliefs of the modern state. His juxtaposition of the often indeterminate nature of the law of torture with the very specific state practices of torture is both startling and revealing."
    —Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and author of Sacred Violence

  • "Parry is effective in building, deploying, and supporting his argument . . . that the law does not provide effective protections against torture, but also that the law is in itself constitutive of a political order in which torture is employed to create—and to destroy or re-create—political identities."
    —Margaret Satterthwaite is Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at the NYU School of Law and Associate Professor of Clinical Law of the International Human Rights Clinic

  • "A beautifully crafted, convincingly argued book that does not shy away from addressing the legal and ethical complexities of torture in the modern world. In a field that all too often produces simple or superficial responses to what has become an increasingly challenging issue, Understanding Torture stands out as a sophisticated and intellectually responsible work."
    —Ruth Miller, Associate Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston

  • "This highly complex, well-researched work is a sobering examination of the nuances of human rights law and the intersection of state power and individual autonomy. Parry convincingly argues that torture as a legal category often bears no resemblance to its practice and utility as a political tool, and that porous defenitions have been crafted-perhaps intentionally- to leave space for state violence amidst legal proclamations to the contrary."
    Choice, M O'Gara, Rocky Mountain College

  • "[Parry's] provocative work is undoubtedly an outstanding contribution to the understanding of torture."
    The Law and Politics Books Review, Vol. 21, No. 4 (April 2011)

  • "I can recommend this book unreservedly. Parry's legal expertise and indefatigable research efforts (his bibliography is almost worth the price of the book on its own) make Understanding Torture an excellent addition to the now-bulging torture bookshelf. His work is most useful at uncovering the difficulties with legally regulated torture, has interesting things to say about the character of modern citizenship, and provides an excellent short history of torture by democracies."
    —Tracy L.R. Lightcap, Perspectives on Politics

  • "Understanding Torture [argues} that while the use of torture is expressly prohibited in the world's democracies, its practice is much more common and widespread than most citizens of these countries would like to believe. Furthermore, Parry argues that the legal framework surrounding torture does little to safegouard against its use, and in many circumstnces it allows givernments to justify their use of such techniques."
    —Evan Herbert, Saskatchewan Law Review

  • "Parry argues that there is no absolute constitutional right not to be tortured. He also claims that despite the widespread criticism of the "torture memos" produced by the Bush administration lawyers, the memos are actually "defensible under existing law"." 
    —Tobias Kelly, Humanity

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Copyright © 2010, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 328 pages.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2011
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02178-9

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  • torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, convention against torture, human rights, critical theory  , cultural studies, governmentality, citizenship, state violence, international law, humanitarian law, European convention on human rights, constitutional law, political identity