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Review of "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People"

By John Conroy
University of California Press, 2000
Review by Kathryn Walker on May 5th 2002
Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People

John Conroy's Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People considering torture from a variety of perspectives, presents an account of the dynamics of torture in three democracies.  Conroy inquires into how the victims experience and deal with torture, with the torturers themselves and with the judiciary response to torture in democratic countries.

The specific cases that Conroy addresses are: the torture of fourteen Northern Irish men by the British army in 1971, the beating of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli soldiers in 1988, and the torture of Andrew Wilson by Chicago's Area 2 police force.  Choosing these particular occurrences, Conroy de-exoticizes torture and forces his reader to recognize it as something that happens closer to home than we might imagine. 

Conroy inquires into the effects of torture.  Through interviews with the victims of torture, Conroy demonstrates the long lasting effects of being tortured.  Torture is not something that just happens and then ends.  Rather, like sexual abuse or war trauma, it incites post-traumatic-stress-disorders and remains with its victims for life.

In examining the judiciary response of democratic countries, exposing the difficulties of bring torturers to justice, Conroy's account testifies to our reluctance to let torture be recognized as familiar.  We need to think that torture is something that happens in other places and we are reluctant, to the point of nearly compromising truth and justice, to admit the possibility that torture happen close to home. 

Conroy's strategy of presenting torture in familiar contexts is furthered by the manner in which he deals with the subjects of his inquiry.  Conroy in his investigation into the dynamics of torture presents a powerful account of the torturers themselves.  The power of this account lies in Conroy's refusal to demonize the torturer.   Rather than present an unphathomable monster, Conroy examines the social and psychological circumstances that subtend torture.  This line of questioning allows Conroy to present a rich, complex, meaningful and importance account of how and why torture can happen. 

Conroy considers the Milgram experiment: In this experiment the subject is instructed to give electric shocks to another person.  This other person, however, is an actor and the electric shocks are in fact, fake.  Thus the subject of the experiment thinks that he or she is really hurting the victim, however the victim's response to the shocks is merely a performance.  The results of this experiment demonstrated that very ordinary everyday people when instructed by an authority figure, here the scientist, to do harm to another, most often comply.  Invoking this experiment, Conroy emphasizes the familiarity of torture: it is not something alien, a characteristic only of monsters, but rather it has psychological foundations in most people.  

Conroy's argument is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt's famous report on the Eichmann trials, "Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil".  Here Arendt told the story of Adolf Eichmann the Nazi officer in charge of the "solution of the Jewish question" and responsible for the death of millions.  The gist of Arendt's account is that evil, despite our desire or need to see it as something monstrous, is in fact very everyday.  Eichmann was a small man, a weak man, and an insecure man.  Eichmann's atrocious crimes against humanity were less the machinations of a supremely evil being and more the ignorant weak errors of a very ordinary person.  Conroy's account of torture makes the same point: the torturer is not beyond us or beyond his/her circumstances. 

This position, of Arendt and Conroy, has important ethical and political implications.  If the atrocious crimes of Eichmann and torturers can be related back to psychological and social circumstances then the necessity for healthy and just social structures must be understood as being of extreme importance.  Conroy's account of torture is a responsible, well informed, engaging and an important expose.  In addition, the account, questioning how people experience torture, how democratic judiciary systems react to torture in their own country and why people become torturers, prompts larger questions about humanity and social justice.  


© 2002 Kathryn Walker

Kathryn Walker is a doctoral student in York University's Social and Political Thought program. Her work is focused on the relationship between moods, rationality and politics. Kathryn is also part of the j_spot editorial collective.