Not in MY name! A collection of quotes on the past, present, and future of the practice of torture / Selected and arranged by Ella Mazel


Detailed Table of Contents


1. What is torture?

2. The more things change ...

3. The purpose of torture

4. The "rules" of torture

5. The techniques of interrogation

6. Can torture ever be justified?

7. What about terrorism?

8. Secrecy and public relations

9. Does torture get results?

10. The torturers

11. The victims

12. Human rights

Index of sources

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


In May 2004, the world was shocked by the revelations of the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. I too was shocked, but I was not surprised. I had been aware of a long history of torture throughout the world, as well as of wartime atrocities.

At the end of World War II in 1945, Charles Lindbergh wrote in his Wartime Journals that it was "the men of all nations to whom this war has brought shame and degredation" including "we, Americans, who had done such things [to the Japanese in the South Pacific], we who claimed to stand for something different." Now the administration was claiming that the "few bad apples" in Iraq did not represent America. Americans are "different."

Yes, I was once among those "well-meaning men and women" who -- as John Conroy describes in his introduction to Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People -- "had the idea that torture was something done in some backward civilization by the barely human and certainly ignorant."

Then came the genocidal depravity of Nazi Germany.

I was not mentally equipped to "understand" how such bestiality could occur until I came across several old volumes with engravings vividly illustrating the sickening torture widely practiced in "the olden days" by supposedly "civilized" people: the ravaging of the early Christians by Nero and his successors; the infamous Inquisition of the Middle Ages; the racist, greed-inspired torture and decimation of the hapless indigenous populations of the "New World" by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 1500s. The centuries-long list is endless. So it seemed there was indeed nothing new under the sun.

The Nazis had replicated (and updated) all of these practices. And, sad to say, so have many countries, against their own citizens and others, despite the efforts of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and many international organizations to abolish torture. But "we" were not like "them."

9/11 and the new "wars"

Now, engaged in a "war on terrorism" and a war in Iraq, we are ourselves in danger of losing the very values we accuse the terrorists of violating. Torture has become an issue because of our treatment of "prisoners of war" and "enemy combatants" -- far beyond what was perpetrated by the original so-called "bad apples" -- and attempts have been made to excuse or even justify its use.

Yes, 9/11 was a horrendous, barbaric, terrorist attack. But the fact is that it brought to our "homeland" -- for the first time since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 -- an experience that has been commonplace (albeit on a smaller scale) in many countries around the world for decades.

So, if we are against torture in principle, what is new about terrorism that makes it all right to change the rules on torture?

The question nagged at me until I felt forced to undertake a search for answers. And since quotes have become my way of sharing what I have read and learned, this compilation is the result. It does not pretend to be a work of scholarly research. With the amount of literature available, and the steady accretion of news and interpretations, that would be a never-ending task. Instead, as a sampling of facts and opinions, it invites the reader to continue the pursuit of information in the continuous outpouring of print and online resources.

What this "collection" includes

The quotes are excerpted from a wide range of "voices" -- ancient to contemporary, liberal to conservative, government officials to "ordinary" people -- culled from books, periodicals, newspapers, press releases, and web sites. Following are a few of the many interesting juxtapositions that came to light:

  • Nineteenth century historians describe torture as "the buried wreckage of a hopelessly irrational past," while the UN Human Rights Commission reports in 2000 that 82 countries practice torture today.
  • Both Yassir Arafat and Patrick Buchanan make a distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters.
  • Some U.S. Army interrogation techniques match corresponding procedures from the Inquisition of centuries ago.
  • Forty years apart, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and South Africa's Minister of Justice rule on the illegality of detaining prisoners indefinitely without trial.
  • Though "the third degree" has been associated with shady police procedures in the United States, it actually originated in the Inquisition and was recycled by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany.
  • The attempted suppression of leaked photos of Abu Ghraib had antecedents in South Vietnam (by the Saigon government in 1965), and in Somalia (by the Canadians in 1994).

The quotes are arranged in a progression of chapters, from defining torture to defining and honoring human rights. It can be read straight through, or skimmed as a source of individual quotes for use in reports, speeches, panel discussions, and such. The index of the "voices" will be particularly helpful in this regard.

What is not included

John Conroy writes: "It may be possible to set down on paper a description of all the horrors of torture in such a way that a multitude of survivors might nod and say, 'Yes, that adequately portrays the pain that I felt.' And yet the end product of such an exercise could be a book too painful for most people to read."

For the same reason, I have elected not to include illustrations, descriptions of torture methods, or victims' graphic accounts of their experiences. Many of the books I quote from do have these in all their vividly horrifying detail, but I have zeroed in on the authors' general conclusions.

One book in particular, John Swain's The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber -- though it may sound from the title like a book for the sadism market -- is in fact a frequently cited work of scholarship. On the other hand, while I found Henri Alleg's The Question unbearable to read, the lengthy introduction by Jean Paul Sartre is a goldmine of passionate literature and illuminating insights.

A note on the importance of context

It is incredibly easy to quote someone out of context. Think of how reviewers' words are cleverly extracted and quoted in ads so that a negative critique is turned into a rave. Then there's the analogy of photos being cropped or digitally manipulated to eliminate "extraneous" details that shed a different light on the subject.

In these sound-bitten days, it has become more common than ever to stigmatize people by "branding" a single word on their foreheads, as was done to Howard Dean with "the scream." So in all fairness -- as much as I was opposed to the appointment of Alberto R. Gonzales as Attorney General on the basis of his writings and his unresponsive testimony -- I think he should not have been stuck with the word "quaint" in regard to the Geneva Conventions. What he actually wrote was: ". . . this new paradigm [the war against terrorism] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments." [Italics mine.] This may sound trivial in the light of his total attitude, but beware -- "branding" works both ways.

Therefore, in excerpting -- and necessarily pruning -- the quotes that follow, I have made every effort to adhere to the intent of the writer or speaker.

Ella Mazel, February 2005

Previous Contents/Top Next