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The Torture Debate in America

The Torture Debate in America edited by Karen J. Greenberg. Cambridge University Press, 2005, 436 pp.

The editor of Torture Debate in America, Karen J. Greenberg is executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, editor of both Al Qaeda Now and the NYU Review of Law and Security, and coeditor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (2005). In her introduction to the compilation under consideration, Greenberg notes her objective of raising public consciousness on torture and facilitating open discussion on US policy regarding that subject. Rather than judging the current policy, the contributors to this volume report the facts and provide policy options consistent with domestic and international laws and ethics.

Given the presence of combatant prisoners at the US Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba, and the wars smoldering in Afghanistan and Iraq, Greenberg and the other contributors, from different disciplines, skillfully tackle the question of whether the United States should allow its military to torture prisoners for information. Following her short introduction is a transcript of a panel discussion by these contributors at the New York University School of Law, including participation by a Judge Advocate General Corps officer who had recent experience defending detainees at Guantanamo.

The participants contrast recent instances of permitting torture with US democratic ideals. Recognizing the need for timely intelligence, they demonstrate how common positions favoring torture also argue against US policy. Most advocates of torture consider it the lesser of two evils if the information obtained saves lives. Considering some prisoners’ extensive time in captivity, several contributors assert that the latter no longer have access to the type of intelligence that could justify torture and point out that the practice violates US ideals of human dignity. Some even suggest that policy allowing torture could harm long-term US interests in the event that enemies reciprocate.

After considering the place of torture in a democracy, the contributors review international law and conventions that govern this practice, all the while avoiding judgmental statements and offering options. After a thorough discussion of applicable international law, they address arguments against torture, the last section glimpsing into the future to predict any ramifications for the United States, given the recent conflicts. Although international laws forbid torture, it remains an option for most nonstate actors that have not signed the pertinent international conventions.

Throughout The Torture Debate in America, the contributors allude to the ease of abusing current US policy on this matter and the unfortunate circumstances in which the United States feels it must resort to torture. Readers who lack a background in international law will appreciate the book’s presentation of national and international legal precedents governing the treatment of detainees. They will also find useful the biographical details for each contributor and the listing of essential source material.

Lt Col Steven M. Beasley, USAF

Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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