Anatomy of Torture, by Ron E. Hassner

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Ron E. Hassner, and Cornell University Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Always one to keep my brain sharp with some academic reading, I turned to this analysis by Ron E. Hassner. While talk of torture and ‘enhanced interrogation’ were buzz words a few decades ago, the topic can still bring out many opinions on both sides of the argument. Does it work? How effective is it? When (if ever) should it be used to garner needed information? Hassner tackles these and many other questions, while also exploring the ethics of torture and its analysis in this concise book that is full of information and opportunities for the reader to learn.

From the outset, Hassner explains that not much is known about modern torture, mostly because it is not documented publicly. Surely, the Americans used it quite significantly after September 11, 2001, but they used euphemisms and kept specifics locked away in classified documents, making any analysis all but impossible. Hassner also explores that different sources offer greatly varied answers when it comes to certain people who were detained, including types, frequency, and intensity of torture. Therefore, any analysis of modern torture is impossible and leaves the door wide open for speculative answers, which is not Hassner’s intention.

Instead, the book examines some of the torture that history has provided with a great deal of documentation. Hassner focuses his attention on the Spanish Inquisition, which used torture quite extensively and over a long period of time. There are also a great number of resources readily available to the curious academic that discuss torture of all kinds and its effectiveness. Hassner uses this for the foundation of his tome and explores how it brought about results, but not in the same way US sources cite torture is used.

The attentive reader will see that Hassner divides torture not only by the time period within the Inquisition, but also types of torture used. It was primarily used to extract information, not pigeonhole individuals who were of a different religious belief. Use of secondary information was key to corroborate views before torture might have been considered, rather than relying on pain to lead towards truth telling. In fact, Hassner explicitly mentions throughout that extreme pain was likely not an effective type of torture, as it would have the recipient say whatever was needed to stop the agony, rather than revealing needed truths.

After a few case studies and analysis, Hassner turns to the ethics of torture and reporting it in a modern, academic fashion. While there have been groups who have used torture for long periods, many sought to scare populations, rather than extract key pieces of information from specific people. This is key to better understanding the process and how torture can only be as effective as its application. Use it too broadly and it becomes moot, though some regimes seem not to mind the stick over the carrot approach.

Ron E. Hassner provides the reader with a strong and well-paced book on torture, exemplifying its effective use, as well las its key downfalls. He uses strong examples, both modern and historical, to support his arguments, but chooses to remain as neutral as possible on the subject, so that the reader can come up with some of their own conclusions. The chapters were full of information, both prose and tabular, allowing for effective and comprehensive understanding of everything on the subject matter. While some of it did get a little deeper than I would have expected (or, at times,could synthesise), I thoroughly enjoyed learning and took much away from this short tome. While I may not be rushing out to read a great deal else on the subject, it has piqued my interest to see what others say on the topic and how they contrast with the work Hassner presented here.

Kudos, Mr. Hassner, for a wonderful chance to better understand theins and out of torture, as well as how history has taught us its uses and downfalls.