Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror; Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib; Torture: A Collection

In This Review

Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror

By Mark Danner
New York Review of Books, 2004
592 pp. $19.95
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Chain of Command: The Road From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib

By Seymour M. Hersh
HarperCollins, 2004
416 pp. $25.95
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Torture: A Collection

Edited by Sanford Levinson
Oxford University Press, 2004
328 pp. $29.95
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Danner's grim collection of documents charts how U.S. government lawyers justified increasingly coercive "interrogation techniques" when dealing with prisoners who may (or may not) have been connected with al Qaeda and then with the Iraqi insurgency. It moves on to describe the testimony of some on the receiving end at Abu Ghraib prison ("Nothing but cursing and beating ... a porn movie ... as if we were dogs") and the revelation of this scandal, accompanied by now-iconic images, by CBS News and The New Yorker. Lastly, there are the reports of those who conducted the investigations pointing to, in the words of former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, "institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels." This incident has done great damage to the international reputation of the United States, and Danner has performed a real public service with this collection and with his trenchant analysis of the material in the included articles from The New York Review of Books.

Hersh performed an even greater public service, as he did with the My Lai scandal more than three decades ago, by bringing to public notice disturbing events being investigated by the military-in this case by Major General Antonio Taguba, whose report is found in the Danner collection. Hersh is a brilliant but flawed investigative journalist. His brilliance lies in his tenacity and readiness to expose the failings of government. His flaw lies in his suspension of critical judgment when hearing a semi-plausible tale that fits with his own prejudices. For that reason, some of his past books (for example, on John F. Kennedy and Israel's nuclear capability) have not been at all reliable. Even in this book, which covers Abu Ghraib as well as topics such as the politicization of intelligence in the run-up to the war, a good story often trumps evidence. Once again, nobody can accuse Hersh of aiming for balance.

Conceived well before the Abu Ghraib story broke, Levinson's collection of essays by philosophers and lawyers provides a cooler, though not dispassionate, look at the issues surrounding torture. Contributors include Jean Bethke Elshtain, Richard Posner, Michael Walzer, and the inevitable Alan Dershowitz. Levinson fairly points out in his introduction that Abu Ghraib does not invalidate the essays. It does, however, point to an underdeveloped dimension: the consequences of torture's being exposed to an international audience. The collection considers the conditions under which torture might nonetheless be acceptable-notably, the "ticking bomb" scenario, when the quick extraction of information can save many lives. Dershowitz argues that the normative case against torture remains strong but that under such conditions inhibitions will be overcome-and that it is best that any torturous interrogation be explicit and controlled. His critics denounce such a move as bringing torture into the realm of the legitimate. Other problems are raised, such as identifying the point at which pressure becomes torture. And as Abu Ghraib demonstrated, once these techniques become routine, they have progressively little to do with extracting information and more to do with jailers demonstrating their power over prisoners.