On Torture, or Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment*

Asad, Talal
December 1996
Social Research;Winter96, Vol. 63 Issue 4, p1081
Academic Journal
This article discusses the modern conception of cruelty, as represented in Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A book by G. R. Scott represents physical cruelty as a feature of barbaric societies, that is, societies that have not yet been humanized. Another book by D. Rejali makes a distinction between two kinds of physical cruelty, one appropriate to pre-modern and the other to modern societies, and describes that difference in the context of contemporary Iran. The instances of physical pain Scott describes as torture belong sometimes to the involuntary submission to punishment and sometimes to the practices of personal discipline. He makes no distinction between the two: pain is regarded as an isolable experience to be condemned for what it is. In his important book, Rejali makes the interesting argument that far from being a barbaric survival in the modern state as Scott's story suggests, torture is in fact integral to it. Although he classifies torture into two types, he shares with Scott the view that the term torture has a fixed referent. More precisely, both of them assume that to speak of torture is to refer to a practice in which the agent forcibly inflicts pain on another regardless of the place that the practice occupies within a larger moral economy.


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