Lunchtime Seminar by Dr Michelle Farrell

Mar 13 2019 Posted: 13:25 GMT

“We tortured some folks”: The Legacy of US torture

Dr Michelle Farrell

Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool 

Irish Centre for Human Rights, Seminar Room

Wednesday 20 March 2019, 1-2pm 

Co-hosted with the Whitaker Institute Conflict, Humanitarianism and Security Cluster

How do governments talk about torture - whether to deny having tortured, to justify a practice of torture, or to admit to a history of torture – without sounding tyrannical? In 2014, then President Barack Obama admitted to a history of torture.  He did not use rhetorical techniques of denial, justification and qualification, the kind of techniques so commonly employed by governments in handling allegations of torture; indeed, techniques that were deployed as a matter of course during the Bush administration. “We tortured some folk”, said Obama, earnestly, candidly, and calm as you like. There was no effort to euphemise, no use of the passive voice, no shifting of blame on to any particular person, agency, or a few bad apples.


Obama used these four little words in August 2014, at a White House press conference, in pre-emption of the publication of the damning Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The sentence is undoubtedly jarring. He admits to the commission of an international crime. He describes the victims, quite colloquially, in friendly terms, as 'folks'. He says 'we' did it.

 In this paper, I will examine this admission with a view to critiquing the US attitude to, and handling of, its post 11 September policy of torture. I will also use Obama’s words as a vehicle to explore the practice of torture beyond the strictures of the human rights and accountability frameworks, that dominate the discussion. In fact, I will use Obama's words to try to enrich our understanding of the act or practice of torture. These words can be interpreted to disclose, I argue, first, torture in all of its liberal democratic glory, second, torture as part of a civilising mission and, finally, torture as a sacrificial practice revealing a political theology of torture.