Every single day I think about torture. Some days I write about it, or teach about it. Every day I read about it. I can turn any social conversation with any friend or relative to the topic. (Keep that in mind if we meet for coffee.) Torture is my obsession. I can trace my obsession back at least to college; I wrote my senior thesis (at Tufts circa 1983) on human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza, among which torture featured prominently. When it was time to select a subject for my doctoral dissertation (at The American University circa late 1980s), I was guided by a wise adviser (Talal Asad) NOT to pursue my original idea--a study of the Unified National Leadership of the Palestinian intifada--because, the wise adviser advised, I should pick a topic that would still be "there" when I got to "the field."
So I picked the Israeli military court system in the West Bank and Gaza. This system, as I learned, studied and wrote, was fueled on tortured confessions. Moreover, Israel had become, in 1987 courtesy of the Landau Commission, the first state in the world to "legalize" torture, albeit euphemized as "moderate physical pressure," as "necessary" and thus legitimate to combat "hostile terrorist activity." In the process of acquiring an expertise on the Israeli military courts, I became something of an expert on torture. And on anti-torture.
I remember the day when my obsession ascended to a new plateau. It was sometime in the mid-1990s, and I was attending a MESA conference (location now forgotten) which was obviously stimulating my creative imagination. I was in the shower when I had a revelation: "sovereign bodies, sovereign states." The integral relationship between the right not to be tortured as absolute and universal and the legal limits of state power and discretion vis-a-vis people in custody. And so I wrote and wrote, and talked and studied about torture and anti-torture. The Pinochet precedent. Universal jurisdiction. My raisons d`etre.
After 9/11, everyone started talking about torture--as in "should `we` [Americans] torture terrorists." The "hypothetical ticking bomb" scenario was all the rage. But it was not until mid-2004, following the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos and the declassification of the first "torture memos" about the secret torture policy that had been instituted by the Bush administration, that torture and anti-torture began to occupy a serious (i.e., non-hypothetical) place in the American political landscape. Many interlocutors had never thought deeply or "professionally" about torture before 2004, and I characterized them as "torture virgins." But with a quickness, some of those virgins became pros.
Torture obsessors united in the virtual communities of listserves and blogs. I was one of the original 20 members of the Princeton-hosted "torturelist" that has become (to my mind, at least) the "cyberheart" of anti-torturism. And so, every day, I can open my email to find posted articles and interventions opining about and debating the latest in interrogational abuse and related matters, a running record of "today in torture." I translated my obsession into a new book topic, which I am working on now: anti-torture lawyering.
I find purpose in my obsession, and comfort from my virtual community of anti-torturistas. I sometimes wonder, What do other people think about?