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Torture Symposium

The “Torture and the Human Body” symposium drew Whitman and Walla Walla community members to Maxey Auditorium to explore this complex issue.

The first symposium sponsored by the Global Studies Initiative, titled “Torture and the Human Body,” illustrated what can happen when an issue of global significance is examined at great length and depth and in an interdisciplinary way with renowned experts on the subject, faculty and student panelists, and input from an audience that included the general public.

The symposium, planned for three hours, ran close to four and exceeded expectations in substance as well as time. Presenters and participants were reluctant to end a significant intellectual exploration and discussion.

The format took the complex issue beyond the media debates that invariably end up on one point — “Should we or shouldn’t we torture people to get information?” — as debaters bounce from one scenario or moral stand to another.

“Fostering a Manichean worldview of good and evil, an uncomplicated political reality pitting us against them, is indeed what a one-dimensional discourse on torture does best,” said Zahi Zalloua, associate professor of foreign languages and literatures, French, and a Global Studies Initiative Steering Committee member, in his opening remarks. “The above narrative takes on ideological force, once it is naturalized, once its contested origins are erased, and presented to the American people, as a self-evident reality.”

By contrast, the symposium examined many dimensions of torture as experts offered tools to tackle the issue, presented in-depth evidence of whether torture is effective, and explored the historical and philosophical cycles of torture and its legacy, including what torture practitioners bring back with them in mindset, practices and training when they return home to serve in police departments and other security positions.

The event featured experts Mark Danner, a contributor to The New Yorker and “The New York Review of Books,” a professor at Bard College and the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror”; Darius Rejali, a political science professor at Reed College and author of “Democracy and Torture”; and Stephanie Athey, associate professor of English at Lasell College and author of published articles on representations of torture.

Mark Danner
Mark Danner, author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror,” was one of three experts from varied academic disciplines who participated in the symposium. In the audience: Alyssa Fairbanks ’12, center, and Jason Pribilsky ’93, associate professor of anthropology.

These “leading intellectuals — critically engaged in the difficult task of undoing such narratives — have done much to debunk commonplace wisdom about what torture is and what it accomplishes,” Zalloua said at the symposium, noting that they have been remarkably attentive to the language of torture and “to its ideological deployment in both the media and academia.

“They invite us, even compel us to probe the concrete circumstances of torture, scrutinizing the current framing of the debate as well as seeking alternative and innovative ways to imagine and understand torture and its traumatic effects on the human body.”

The symposium explored the issues as a “whole … not analyzed in isolation,” said Zalloua. “It was an important concept … and it welcomed an interdisciplinary approach. It was the material manifestation of the liberal arts idea.”

The three guest speakers representing different disciplines were interesting and informative individually, said Leor Maizel ’09. “But taken as a conversation, the participants in the symposium all gained something significant … the ability to explore broader perspectives on the issue. Ultimately, I went away feeling that this broad scope allowed me to form more discerning and educated opinions,” said the philosophy major.

Valerie Lopez ’09, a symposium panelist, learned from the experience that politically charged issues are best understood if “approached dynamically and interdisciplinarily.”

Prior to the event, each student panelist was given the text of one of the speakers’ prepared speeches and asked to prepare a response. It was a powerful showcase of Whitman students’ abilities.

“The students really bowled me over with their intelligence, wit and poise,” Danner said. “Impressive — and incontrovertible — testimony to what you are achieving at Whitman.”

Damluji, Chapman, Lopez
(Left to right) Politics major Nadim Damluji ’10, philosophy major Adam Chapman ’09 and English major Valerie Lopez ’09, panelists in the torture symposium, impressed speaker Mark Danner, who said their “intelligence, wit and poise” are “testimony to what you are achieving at Whitman.”
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