The global anti-torture norm has been one of the main examples of a global civilising process. It refl ects modern sensibilities to cruelty and excessive force which were highlighted in Norbert Elias's account of the ‘civilising process’. The idea of defending civilisation has also been used to defend torture in the war against terror. Exceptional methods are needed, it has been argued, to protect civilised ways of life. Notions of constitutional or ‘civilised torture’ have been introduced to try to harmonise these competing views. They have been employed in the attempt to reconcile civilised self-images with the use of excessive force. The future role of torture in the ‘war against terror’ depends on the interplay between these competing conceptions of the civilising process.