Sacred Violence

Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty
Paul W. Kahn

Is torture the inevitable reaction to terrorism?


In Sacred Violence, the distinguished political and legal theorist Paul W. Kahn investigates the reasons for the resort to violence characteristic of premodern states. In a startling argument, he contends that law will never offer an adequate account of political violence. Instead, we must turn to political theology, which reveals that torture and terror are, essentially, forms of sacrifice. Kahn forces us to acknowledge what we don't want to see: that we remain deeply committed to a violent politics beyond law.

Cover Illustration: "Abu Ghraib 67, 2005" by Fernando Botero. Courtesy of the artist and the American University Museum.

Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights.

Praise / Awards

  • "An extended meditation on the contemporary debate about torture and terrorism that forces the reader to grapple with troubling issues that we would prefer to ignore."
    —Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School

  • "A provocative, thoughtful, and learned exegesis of the relationship of torture, terror, state violence, and sovereignty."
    —Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Swarthmore College

  • "Kahn analyzes terror and torture as twin forms of sacrificial violence. An insightful and provocative challenge to the current debate."
    —Ruth Grant, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Duke University

  • "Sacred Violence is the best thing I have ever read about the deep connections between the will-to-violence and lingering religious archetypes...this book will be a central reference on my future writings on cruelty, mercy, and the law."
    —Dr. Paulo Barrozo, Harvard University

  • "Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty is a book that is much less optimistic about the future...Where there is terrorism, Kahn posits, there will be torture. In a provocative argument and almost conversational style, Kahn comes across with rare honesty in saying that torture happens in this day and age and there is little anyone can do about it."
    —Eric L. Miller, President of the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives

  • "This book is disturbing, provocative, engaging, learned and essential; it challenges those of us who believe in international law's autonomy and in the possibility of a world without sacrificial violence to revisit and interrogate the basic precepts and underpinnings of this belief and strive for more effective operationalisation. There is surely little more than one could ask of a book or an author than this."
    —Fiona de Londras, Law and Politics Book Review

  • "...a blistering critique of the commitment to law and rights as the highest rationale of politics and of those who see modern history as tending toward the realization of that commitment." 
    —Julian Bourg, Humanity

Look Inside

Copyright © 2008, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

News, Reviews, Interviews


Listen: "Sacrifice of Life for the State?", CUNY radio interview with Paul Kahn and Austin Sarat


Listen: Yale University: Books and Authors interview and reading with Paul Kahn

Read: Review Law and Politics Book Review

Read: Article OpEdNews | 2/8/2009

Read: Blog Experimental Theology | 4/20/2009

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 248pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2008
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07047-3

Add to Cart
  • $89.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2008
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05047-5

Add to Cart
  • $25.95 U.S.

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