Torture expert Darius Rejali warns of American amnesia


Darius Rejali

“In a time of change, the greatest danger is amnesia,” torture expert Darius Rejali warned during a discussion titled “Torture and Democracy: What Now?” at the Center for Government and International Studies on Wednesday, March 11. Rejali was introduced by Jacqueline Bhabha, the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School and the Director of the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies. The University Committee on Human Rights Studies sponsored the event.

Rejali, an Iranian native, professor of political science at Reed College, and author of Torture and Democracy, the winner of the 2008 Best Book award in the Human Rights Section by the American Political Science Association, spoke at length about the historical origins of torture techniques and the supply and demand of torture in the modern world.While Rejali acknowledged that “things have changed” with the election of President Barack Obama ’91, he cautioned that in other periods of change, Americans have closed their eyes and ears to the truth of torture. “At the end of World War Two, we all lived in a time of change and we were hopeful. We came to believe that no one on our side was a torturer. We came to believe that torture came from the Nazis, the Stalinists, the enemy.” In fact, Rejali stated, torture was developed and utilized extensively by all the major allies-England, France, and the U.S.-long before the horrors of the Second World War. To confront the reality of torture in our own societies, we must, Rejali implored, “set aside the notion that winners are morally pure.”

Rejali joked that when governments issue new policies, people tend to think torture ends and that “scholars like myself go out of business.” However, the reality is, “that torture changes least when governments change…and changes most during periods of relative stability when the State can experiment with new techniques. When governments are unstable, they will use the techniques of the past.”

Ultimately, while governments are significant contributors to the consumption of torture, Rejali described torture not as a government practice, but rather as a social institution. “Torture does not hide within a vault at the CIA,” he quipped. That said, Rejali defined torture with reference to state action, stating that the four characteristics of torture are: actions by a state official or state representative, against a victim that is detained and helpless (unable to escape), in which physical pain must be a part, and the purpose of pain is for authorized state purposes (confession, intimidation, or information).

The impetus to torture emerges in a variety of different circumstances and amongst a diverse group of actors, not just national security crises and federal governments. Indeed, according to Rejali, two-thirds of torture occurs in “domestic” scenarios, such as tacit agreements between police, businessmen, and homeowners to “keep streets safe” or from the overvaluing of confessions within permissive judicial systems.

Rejali also stressed that decommissioned soldiers returning from war provide an additional source of torture techniques. For example, Rejali noted that former Chicago Police Commissioner Jon Burge, who was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice last fall in connection with a scandal in which he is accused of torturing scores of people in an effort to get confessions, introduced torture techniques within the Chicago Police Department that were first used by Americans in Vietnam in 1963.

Indeed, most torture techniques are spread by political and economic exchange. American soldiers brought back waterboarding from the Philippines in 1905. According to Rejali, waterboarding was particularly common in the South, the region to which most soldiers returned.Other examples of torture exchange include the two major “clean techniques”-the French-modern system and the Anglo-Saxon modern. “Clean” techniques, which have developed a near-monopoly on torture in the latter half of the 20th century, are “useful” because they leave no external signs of abuse, such as scarring.

The French-modern technique, which combines electricity and water, first appeared in French colonies in 1931. Colonial police passed it on to the Vichy, who in turn taught it to the Gestapo in 1943. Anglo-Saxon modern techniques, which include sleep-deprivation, exhaustion exercises, and forced standing, developed as British military punishments in the 18th century. The techniques burgeoned in America, particularly as a result of the slave trade. Since slaves were less valuable if they showed outward signs of abuse, slave masters took advantage of techniques that would employ pain without scarring.

The importance of “unseen” torture did not end with the slave trade. Visual depictions of torture are still the most likely to produce visceral responses from the general public. Rejali stated, “People judge more by what they see than what they hear. The news of torture at Abu Ghraib broke in January 2004, but only in April 2004 when CBS broke the pictures did we really begin to be concerned about torture in America.” Rejali also cited the Rodney King videotape, which sparked riots in Los Angeles. “Violence you can see leads to riots in LA. Violence you can’t see may as well never have happened.”

While these examples, and others in Rejali’s book, explore the exchange of torture between peoples, there is still much to be discovered about the twisted journeys of torture techniques. “We know more about how hybrid corn spreads in Iowa than we do about how techniques spread among police forces throughout the world,” Rejali declared.

Rejali also spoke about the psychology of the torturer. A common misperception, Rejali stated, is that torturers choose techniques based on their personal “abnormal psychology.” In fact, torturers are, “mainly normal people, not sadists, who are chosen because they are loyal, patriotic, take directions, and can keep a secret.”

Rejali then tackled one of the central questions about the costs and benefits of torture. He stated, “The question of whether torture works is whether torture can get you true information.” Ultimately, Rejali said, studies have shown that 20-78 innocent people are tortured for every accurate piece of information gained. “Good torture is wholesale business,” Rejali stated, “a numbers game.”

Instead of dealing with the inefficiencies and immoralities of torture, Rejali offered public cooperation as the most effective way to combat terrorism. “Torture destroys the only thing that really works: public cooperation. Torture takes far more innocent lives than it saves.” Rejali concluded, “If torture is only moral if is saves innocent lives, torture must necessarily be immoral.”

Turning to the future of torture policy in the U.S., Rejali stated that many errors of judgment made by the Bush administration were still waiting to be rectified. For example, Rejali stated, the Military Commissions Act (MCA) defined torture as pain associated with death or organ failure. Two months into the Obama administration, “No legislation has been drafted to change the MCA and bring it in line with international law.”

Additionally, Rejali cited the continued lack of human rights training for the armed forces and an impotent whistleblower law as obstacles to eliminating torture from the American playbook. Lastly, Rejali stated, “it will take a generation” to replace the dedicated, career civil servants who left the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence organizations over the past decade as a result of techniques sanctioned by the U.S.

Rejali concluded with a recapitulation of his warning. “What time is it now in America? We are living in a time of forgetfulness. But while elections are for seasons, torture is forever. [There is] no reason to make the same mistake again. We can stop it if we have the will.”

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