The Return of Torture


Prof. Dr. Karsten Altenhain, Universität Düsseldorf, Lehrstuhl für Strafrecht, Wirtschaftsstrafrecht und Medienrecht

Prof. Dr. Reinhold Görling, Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Kultur und Medien

Prof. Dr. Johannes Kruse, Universität Gießen, Medizinisches Zentrum für Psychosomatische Medizin, Klinik für Psychosomatik und Psychotherapie

At the beginning of the 21st century the efforts to extinct torture face new questions and challenges. With the declaration of human rights in 1948 and with the conventions against torture that were declared by the United Nations and the European Council in 1987 it seemed that there was a growing global consent to ban this extreme form of violence and that the persistence of torture could be related to attributed to incorrigible dictatorships. But in the last decade even in democratic societies a new discussion is emerging about the legalisation of torture in relation to the prevention of greater harm or the saving of lives. An obvious example were the attempts to legalise forms of torture during the administration of the former US-American president George W. Bush.

The documented reality of torture in the prison camp of Guantánamo and in secret US detention centres around the world demand for a new reflection upon this return of torture, demand for research on its causes and on the possibilities to confront it. In addition, torture is becoming an increasingly used topic in film, television series and computer games since the mid 1990s.

In television series like “24” as well as in many speeches and papers written by politicians or jurists (legal academics, lawyers) torture is presented as a successful means of getting information. But the insight in the complete unreliability of statements made under torture is well known and was already an important argument for the abolition of torture as part of juridical procedures in the 18th century.

When in the 20th century torture returned as a practice of dictatorships and totalitarianism, the gaining of information was probably less an aim than a means, a cruel mise-en-scene which had and still has the objective to destroy the autonomy and subjectivity of the victim. The scientific knowledge that medical and psychiatric experts have acquired in the last decades proves the disastrous success of this kind of violence. Torture threatens the basal social context of human life in a real and in a symbolic sense.

The interdisciplinary project in which scholars of media studies, jurisprudence and medicine will be working together, is studying this complex and contradictory phenomenon in different stages and under different perspectives. Grounded on a meta-analysis of the medical and psychological insights and of the juridical discourses the project will develop a critical concept of torture. A parallel project analyses the representation of torture in audiovisual media, looking for discursive, cinematic and receptive contexts. Other projects deal with the juridical aspects of filmic representation and its indication, with the role of torture and legal processes on asylum and residence permits, with the contradictory relation of medicine and psychology in regard to torture, and with current juridical discussions. Finally, the three disciplines will work together in a qualitative empirical study on the impact of audio-visual representation of torture on spectators.

It is our aim to obtain knowledge that will have practical consequences in regard to media law, asylum or residence law and criminal law. At the same time we regard this project as fundamental research work on the possibilities of ostracising torture continuously in the 21st century.