September-October 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 7

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Sociology translates to public action . . .

This occasional column highlights sociologists who successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Over the years, members of ASA and sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Johanna Olexy (, 202-383-9005 x312) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

Torture, War, and Sociology

by Marnia Lazreg, City University of New York-Hunter College

Recent debates about the permissibility of torture, and the steady stream of revelations about its authorized but secret uses propelled my research on torture into the public realm. My experience indicates that public sociology, in addition to being immensely necessary in times of political crises, has a cross-cultural dimension.


Reproduction of Roberto Matta Echaurren’s
1946 oil-on-canvas, titled Ętre Avec (Being With)

My research began in Algeria, in the late 1990s, as an attempt to understand the extreme violence that a fractious Islamist movement as well as the Army used against the population during the civil war (1992-2002). I was fortunate enough to interview two regional Islamist leaders, and was even luckier when I was able to speak for two hours with a defector from a radical faction of the movement who had been made to witness the torture of other men as a deterrent to betrayal. I noticed that my respondents found it easier to answer questions about "violence" than about "torture." I was mulling this over when in 2001, as I walked by a bookstore window in Algiers, two books displayed side by side caught my attention: One was by a former French general, Paul Aussaresses, who confessed to the torture of numerous Algerians during the war (1954-62); the other by a woman, Louisa Ighilahriz, a member of the nationalist movement (Front de Libération Nationale) whom paratroopers had subjected to torture and rape for nearly 11 weeks in 1957 after capturing her. The juxtaposition of these books had a historic and symbolic significance in a city famous for its clandestine torture centers in the 1950s.

From Algiers I traveled to Paris where I became acquainted with a series of new publications on torture, among them expensive reviews with glossy war pictures of Algerians in torture poses. This packaging of torture and war—a trope for objectifying torture without coming to terms with it—served as another warning of the myriad of problems that lay ahead as I was about to focus my research on torture. I realized that the civil war violence in which I was initially interested was part of a broader historical configuration where imperial and post-imperial politics loomed large. I doubted whether describing torture’s methods, identifying the services that fostered it, naming those who ordered it—important as they were—satisfactorily addressed the larger issue of why torture became systematic in the declining French colonial state in spite of its legal prohibition, and reared its head again in post-independence Algeria.

Depressing or Fascinating Subject?

I decided to focus on torture as a critical category of analysis through which to understand the interface between power, national identity, and imperial ideology. Thus began a journey that took me to military archives at Vincennes and a number of research libraries. I supplemented archive materials with diaries written by former soldiers, confessions to torture, and interviews with, as well as accounts written by, victims of torture.

On occasion, at conferences, a participant would approach me and suggest how "depressing" it must be for me to work on torture. It is true that accounts of torture are not enjoyable. However, as torture has entered public debates, it is increasingly evident that shying away from it is an untenable position. Unlike other disciplines, sociology is still groping for a language in which to address torture meaningfully. Should torture be approached as a problem for liberalism?¹ Should it be addressed as a special case of violence, as we sometimes do?² Clearly, torture is a conundrum for liberal democracies, as torture is a violent act. Yet, the focus on democracy or violence as a starting point shifts the emphasis away from the complexity of what constitutes torture. There is a surplus of meaning to the act of torture when it occurs at the behest of the state, in violation of the law, and for reasons that transcend its official purpose—namely the gathering of intelligence.

I found it useful to think of torture as occurring in two overlapping contexts. Torture unfolds in a social, psychological, cultural, political or geopolitical, and juridical situation. Furthermore, torturer and the tortured face each other as individuals embedded in different histories, belief systems, value orientations, and political commitments that give the torture situation its texture and lethal potential. Torture is a "total social phenomenon," in the manner that Marcel Mauss defined the gift-exchange.³

Torture presented me with an epistemic as well as a moral challenge. (Even advocates of torture feel obligated to ritually condemn it first.) As I started writing, I repressed the temptation to theorize torture, not only because I feared legitimizing it4 but also because doing so would reify it, anoint it with a scientific cover, and uncouple it from the pain, humiliation, and degradation that constitute its core.

The research I carried out resulted in the publication of my book, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad. The book provides a context in which to understand the state’s use of torture as an "antidote to terrorism"5 and a (needed) comparative perspective on current debates on torture. I found that torture in wars of occupation is a strategic imperative grounded in a counter-insurgency theory (guerre révolutionnaire). In Algeria, there was a military doctrine formulated by French officers (and taught to the CIA and in U.S. military schools in the 1960s), in which the occupied population is used as a war front. My research also found: Torture fulfills functions that surpass the need for intelligence, including psychological (especially brainwashing), political, and ideological functions. When condoned by the state, torture becomes routinized, which leads to the dehumanization of the native population and the over-valuation of the culture of the occupying power. Torture is not reducible to one technique or another nor is it the sum of its parts. State justifications of torture rest on the activation of religious sentiment and exaltation of national identity. Intellectuals’ justifications of torture are grounded in fiction used as tropes for sustaining fear of the unknown.

Out in the World

Since the book’s publication, I have appeared on 30 local and regional radio shows as well as on nationally syndicated radio programs. I have answered queries by concerned people. Radio hosts often invited other guests to join in, thus enabling me to "meet" like-minded scholars and playwrights. I have spoken to a wide array of audiences and discovered a real public hunger for an interpretative framework that pulls together the disparate pieces of news about torture and the war in Iraq. Speaking in the media has helped refine and expand my views. In addition, I have been asked to write an affidavit on individuals threatened with deportation to countries where torture is widespread. I will continue to engage in public debates and plan to write a brief on torture for the future democratic nominee. I also hope to start a network of sociologists against the war and torture. small_green


1 Lukes, Steven. 2006. "Liberal Democratic Torture." British Journal of Political Science 36(1):1-16.

2 Collins, Randall. 1974. "Three Faces of Cruelty: Towards a Comparative Sociology of Violence." Theory and Society 1(4):415-440.

3 Mauss, Marcel. 1967. The Gift. New York: Norton.

4 Zizek, Slavoj. 2002. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London and New York: Verso.

5 Trinquier, Colonel Roger. 1968. Guerre, Subversion, Révolution. Paris: Robert Laffont, p. 70. English translation by Daniel Lee. 1985. Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Combat Studies Institute Press.


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