Cornell University Press Ithaca College Interns Write

Exploring Modern Connections to Controversial History of Torture

Return to Home

For more than a decade now, Ithaca College students have interned in the Cornell University Press marketing department, where they have learned valuable on-the-job skills and, for some, where they kick-started their careers in publishing.  Welcome to the second edition of our new blog series, Ithaca College Interns Write. This post is written by Sarah Moon, a senior majoring in writing and minoring in English at Ithaca College.

The role of torture in modern conflict has been a recurring subject in the debates about counterterrorism, human rights, and intelligence analysis since 9/11. Acts of terrorism still make the headlines, including the January 2022 synagogue attack in Texas, which potentially linked the attacker to 2010 events involving Aafia Siddiqui in Afghanistan. But torture has a much longer history than the past twenty years or so. 

In his book, Anatomy of Torture, Ron Hassner traces the use of torture throughout history, focusing primarily on the infamous Spanish Inquisition. The subjects of the Inquisition’s torture were non-Christians. The 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain created a notable underground network of Jews in both Spain and Portugal. The Inquisition targeted people who pretended to practice Christianity while practicing other religions like Judaism, Lutheranism, or Islam. Tracing the Inquisition’s practiced methods of torture from the converso trials in Spain to the Nuevo León trials in Mexico, the Inquisition’s use of torture was about efficiency, not sadism; its goal was simply to extract and corroborate information. That’s not to say the Inquisition was not brutal, or that people did not die during interrogations. Carefully documented records of the Inquisition’s reign reveal both success in gathering information and that torture did not always result in reliable or actionable information. 

Hassner’s research eventually brings him to the use of torture by the US military during foreign conflicts. CIA documents reveal torture via sleep deprivation of Abu Zubaydah resulted in the successful arrest of Jose Padilla, along with other testimonies. Torture was also one of the investigative methods used to collect information in 2002 about Osama bin Laden as well as another instigator of the attacks on 9/11. While accurate information has been obtained by the US government in counter-terrorism efforts, even the US Army Field Manual states that information gathered through torture may be falsified to end the violence. 

The political and social circumstances of the Inquisition’s torture cannot be neatly applied to modern circumstances. Technology and international relations have changed drastically to the point that the justifications for torture in the sixteenth century cannot be used in the twenty-first century. Through Anatomy of Torture, Hassner hopes to kickstart a more thorough record of modern torture. 

Book Finder