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Torture in Democratic Societies: Interview with Darius Rejali

Water boarding.  Hypothermia.  Stress positions.  Prolonged isolation.   Sensory deprivation.  These “clean” tortures leave deep psychological wounds but few physical scars—and they have been used for decades not only by dictatorships, but by democratic governments, including the United States. 

After 9/11, Americans used these techniques on so-called “enemy combatants” detained in a system of prisons from Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib and the Pentagon's detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to numerous CIA black sites.  And according to recent reports, officials at the highest levels of the Bush Administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, approved the use of “harsh interrogation techniques” in questioning detainees.

In his massive study, Torture and Democracy (Princeton, 2007), internationally renowned violence and torture expert, Dr. Darius Rejali, writes that these “clean” interrogation methods not only violate international law, but they radicalize enemies, undermine credibility, and yield unreliable intelligence.  They do not strengthen national security, but instead make us less safe.

In his acclaimed book, Dr. Rejali sets forth an encyclopedic history of torture methods as well as a social science analysis, and an argument against torture.  Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, called the book a “superb genealogy of modern torture.”  Roth added: “Rejali's indictment derives its power from thoughtful analysis and deep historical grounding. It is the best book on the subject that I have encountered. No one should debate the merits of torture without having read it.”

Dr. Rejali is a professor of political science at Reed College in Porland, Oregon.  He is also Iranian-American, and his first book focused on Iran: Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran.  In his forthcoming book, Approaches to Violence (Princeton, 2008), Dr. Rejali provides a manual for citizens to use in addressing issues of violence. 

To balance the demands of his dark studies, Dr. Rejali writes poetry, plays music, travels extensively, and surfs.

Prof. Rejali recently discussed torture in democracies on a visit to Seattle.

Robin Lindley:  You’re one of the foremost experts on torture today.  When you were a child in Iran were you concerned about torture and social justice?

Darius Rejali:  No.  I had a perfectly lovely childhood where I thought about the things kids think about.  It was only late in graduate school that I started writing on torture because of the work I was doing on Michel Foucault.  I wrote my first book, a combination of Foucault and Iran, on the subject of torture.  After that, people kept coming back to me because it turned out I was pretty good at two things: talking about really horrible things and not having it affect me very seriously.  The other part is I could think of interesting things to say about the stuff that I heard, and things others hadn’t thought about.  So those are two gifts. 

When I look back on my childhood and ask how did I get those two gifts, I think [it’s] storytelling—a very big part of the Middle East.  The other part is Iran’s particularly violent history.  If you grow up in Iran, you aren’t afraid of the dark as much.  You can talk about it.  You know torture happens all the time.  In that sense, my childhood was a typical Iranian childhood.  Two things—the capacity to look at the dark side and to come back with interesting stories to tell—are probably from my childhood. 

RL:   You mention your great-grandfather’s use of torture in the book.  Did you know about that as a child?

DR:  Yes.  I came from a privileged background, [with] relatives whose backgrounds were not very pretty.  As I got to know their histories, I became less interested in whether they were good or bad people, and more interested in why they did what they did because, on the surface, it looked irrational.   You might say the sociologist in me [emerged] as a child trying to understand family history, why they made the decisions they did, and why they’re not worth repeating.

My great grandfather was a prince and wanted to be feared, so he wasn’t afraid to torture and kill people who he thought were terrorists and anarchists.  His enemies all said his values [were not] worth it because he defended them using barbaric methods.  And nobody really misses him.  So I tell Americans don’t make the same mistake of my great-grandfather—don’t defend the values you have using barbaric methods because nobody will miss you either.  

RL:   And you had a great-grandmother who survived the siege of Atlanta during the Civil War?

DR:  Yes.  I actually learned about my American family later in life.  It was peculiar growing up in Iran.  My mother would serve black-eyed peas, and I’d ask, what is this?  She just needed a little connection to her past.  She grew up in the North, but her father was a Georgian.  One of the reasons I talk about my great-grandmother is to remind people that we’ve had both war and torture on American soil.  It’s worth remembering now because we’ve lived in a period of relative prosperity and safety in America, and people forget that [violence] can happen anywhere. 

RL:   And your great-grandmother confronted Gen. Sherman for reparations?

DR:  So the legend goes.  Both sides of my family are matriarchies.  The women are the strong edges of the family, and keep it together through all the changes.

RL:   You’ve mentioned the high degree of suspicion in the Iran when you grew up.  Did you find that in your own life with your friends?

DR:  Yes.  All of us were aware.  Certainly, as a teenager, it became stifling.  Iran was a lovely place to be a young kid under ten because everybody loved children, but when you became a teenager and had opinions and started developing, then you had issues.  I had friends who came with bodyguards to school, and friends who told me not to say certain things in the schoolyard because other people might be listening.  I had relatives who were occasionally taken in for questioning.  I grew up with an amorphous fear.  A large part of what I do is expiates that fear, gets that fear out of me, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. 

Every time I go back to Iran I remember the fear that you can’t say anything or do anything.  The only people you can really trust are in your own family.  That’s also very typical of authoritarian societies.  They tend to divide people, and everyone is afraid of saying things.  I can’t say I ever suffered terribly, but you knew bad things happened, you knew the basic rules about what you could and couldn’t do.  You saw people with privilege doing some terrible things for which they never had to answer.  All those things were around you.  I don’t really miss the society of the king and growing up in that world.  If I miss anything, [it’s] how it was charmingly beautiful, it was glamorous.  

RL:   You write, in effect, that people need to know about cruelty to resist tyranny.

DR:  Ignorance is a serious problem.  In a general way, when there’s a lot of violence, and people are afraid of talking and are ignorant of what’s happening, then they’re not capable of resisting political actions against them.  

It’s important to empower people, to give them the vocabulary to talk about violence.  Actually, there’s a lot you can do about violence [but] if you don’t feel comfortable about it, and can’t talk about it intelligently, and if all it becomes is movies and [the television show] 24 and that weird stuff, you rapidly become gullible, a fool and easily manipulated, and that’s a real problem.

I think we forget that the founding truths of democracy are built on hard won insights into the way violence works, and the deep understanding that the reason we obey laws that limit power is not that we worry about others, but that we worry about ourselves because no one can be trusted with absolute power over another person.  That’s the heart of early liberals, and they were right.

RL:   How did you decide to study torture in democracies?

DR:  I decided [in the mid-1990’s] to do a small study on how electro-torture works because it was a simple technology with a hundred-year history, and you could identify it in any book.  I did an initial study of electro-torture and asked when it started, who used it, how it spread.  I looked at that and it seemed to come repeatedly out of democracies. 

At the same time, I saw the world of tasers and stun guns emerging around me.  We have forms of violence now that people can’t see and are immune to third party monitoring.

The most important thing was to separate out the myths that these tortures never happened and that democracies never torture.  As I [dispelled] the myths, I found the actual pattern, and it became obvious it had something to do with democracy.   I realized that the key factor was public monitoring: wherever you have a high degree of public monitoring, the cleaner the torture will be with less to show the press, to show lawyers. 

The goal of [the book] isn’t just to make the argument that democracies torture or that their torture is cleaner.  It’s also to be a source book.  I hope it’s valuable for people who work in law or human rights. 

RL:   It’s encyclopedic in scope.

DR:  It could have gone a different direction [like] a straight social science book with my hypotheses up front, but then it wouldn’t have been useful to the general public. It’s encyclopedic, but it’s also an argument about the twentieth century and how we should remember it as it pertains to torture without the hypocrisy. 

It’s actually remorseless toward everybody.  There’s not a single country or a single privileged group that doesn’t get its contribution to torture whether it’s Canada, which no one would think of having to do with torture, but I talk about its moments of torture.  Nobody is morally pure.  Once you think you’re morally pure, you forget your own history.

RL:   And you recount a history of US torture that didn’t leaves marks used on slaves, and water boarding used in the Philippine insurrection in the early 1900’s.

DR:  Not to mention the long history of torture from 1910 to 1940 domestically, and the violence against African-Americans in the south in the fifties.  There’s a whole history we don’t remember because we like the happy history that we never tortured.  Yes, we established the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we have not acknowledged our past, [and] we think we are genetically coded not to torture just because we’re born American, and that’s not true.

Anyone who has any exposure to policing or military life knows that social conditions drive ordinary people to violence.  It doesn’t matter what your DNA coding is.  I constantly tell people, especially military and police, that you need to pay more attention to social sciences.  It’s not about telling soldiers to be good; it’s also about preventing the conditions where they would be bad.

RL:   You recount the torture of prisoners with electricity by Seattle police in the 1920’s.

DR:  In the 1910’s and 1920’s, when electricity was new, several police forces used electric devices to get confessions from prisoners.   In Seattle from about 1922 to 1925 there was a cell in the downtown prison with an electrified mat.  The [prisoners] would be forced to walk on it, then the electricity would be turned on, and the prisoners would hop and skip and sparks would fly until [they] confessed.  The great thing about that was that electricity didn’t leave marks.

And that was one of several cases.  In Dallas, they attached prisoners to a battery.  In Arkansas, they had a portable electric chair in a sheriff’s office that didn’t kill [but] shocked during interrogations.  The oldest is “the hummingbird,” the first electrical device used in 1908 in prisons in New York, as documented by the anarchist and writer Emma Goldman.  She had a long-term correspondence with prisoners [who] described the hummingbird.  It was probably an electrical device that hummed with current like an early cattle prod.  That was the first electric torture device used on helpless individuals by state officials for the purpose of intimidation.

Most forget that America is the place where electro-torture began—not Nazi Germany.  And it began for important reasons: a socialist opposition, press who followed the police, church groups.  The police wanted to avoid bad publicity when they could, so they used these [devices].  It’s similar to the way stun guns and tasers are used today on populations that generally aren’t cared about in conditions that are hard to document.

RL:   The use of a taser on Rodney King was news to me.

DR:  Even as the video was running [during the police beating], he was in pain from electricity.  Some of the police behavior on the video appears connected to them trying to avoid the electrified wire and being shocked.   It was an early version of the taser.  Officer Stacey Koon fired the taser twice before the video started.  Each taser dart as it goes into [a person] delivers about 50,000 volts.  It didn’t knock [King] out, but it threw him down.  He was so big it didn’t work, but he had those [darts] in him when they approached him with batons and started beating him.  And Koon said he then released whatever charge was left [and] drained the taser while the video was running. 

So [King] was being electro-tortured.   The beating, which everyone could see, so outraged people it led to riots in Los Angeles, but nobody saw the electric torture, so nobody could react to it.  If he had just been subjected to electrical pain, would anybody have said anything?   The guess is probably not. 

And that’s what I mean by political literacy.  Every one of these things need a history and a name, and people need to become more familiar with the modern ways of doing violence.  If you don’t know what it is, you’re a victim of it sooner or later. 

RL:   You’ve indicated that, in a sense, all of the deaths and injuries in the Iraq war—American and Iraqi—are the result of torture.

DR:  All of the failures in Iraq are predictable outcomes of not paying attention to how torture works.  I note the interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al Qaeda operative who was in charge of one the camps in Afghanistan.  At first he cooperated with the FBI interrogators.  Then, the CIA grabbed him and took him to an undisclosed location.  The only things they wanted to know were where were the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and what was al Qaeda’s connection to Saddam Hussein.  Al- Libi said Saddam Hussein was training al Qaeda on weapons of mass destruction, which went directly into the president’s speech in 2002, and was a large part of the justification that [Secretary of State Colin] Powell gave at the United Nations for going to war with Iraq. 

Later, it turned out al-Libi was tortured and he retracted his statements and said it was all lies.  And of course we know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the Pentagon concluded recently that there was no al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection.  So basically what took us to war was torture. 

I don’t know how many lives torture has saved, but I know how many torture has taken because we know this war was started and prosecuted with information gained through coercion and that produces such high unreliability that you’re bound to make mistakes, kill innocent people, and lose your own soldiers.  If people want good intelligence, torture is not the way to get it. 

RL:   Yet this administration insists on using these “harsh interrogation techniques,” and Bush vetoed the bill to prevent the CIA from using these techniques.

DR:  They say these [techniques] are useful and save lives, but whatever that number of lives saved is, it better be a lot larger than the lives it’s taken. 

The reality is that every case where this is said and social scientists have later opened the archives, it’s a disaster.  I have a feeling this will be no less [a matter of] foolishness, blind willfulness, the need for revenge, and self deception, and none of these [techniques] work.  A large part of this is selling yourself as tough on security, and the perception that maybe you’re weak if you’re not torturing, which is a bad way to build credibility with other people, particularly with something that doesn’t really work.  But, as my father is fond of saying, “God puts a limit on intelligence, but he puts no limit on stupidity.”

RL:   Recently it came to light that the highest administration officials—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Ashcroft, and others—discussed torture and while insulating Bush from the meetings.

DR:  There are two ways people have been telling the story of torture in this administration.  One way is that it was a series of accidental, stupid decisions that led down a slippery slope—so they really didn’t know what they were doing but wanted to be tough, and they created ambiguity and confusion and sent mixed messages.  People filled it in whatever way they wanted, and that produced torture on the ground.  That’s the slippery slope story.

Another version is that this was all carefully planned and carefully staged from the start, like a mafia operation.  They got their bruisers and there were nods and winks and [they decided] “we don’t care what you do, just do it.” 

The story that just came out is neither of these two stories.  It sounds like these guys cared enough about the rule of law that they knew they couldn’t do this with only nods and winks.  They had to make this look and sound legal.  So it wasn’t just a slippery slope story, and it wasn’t nod and winks and just solve the problem now.  It was more that we’re going to do this and we need legal cover [with] lawyers from the president’s Office of Legal Counsel to okay this. 

To me, that’s interesting because they knew they were doing something that could potentially damage the office of the presidency forever, and they had to fit [this plan into] the rule of law because otherwise people would think of them as complete savages.  And to me, that’s positive.  You’re not dealing with mafia types.  [But it’s] distressing  that lawyers are easily manipulated and that the Office of Legal Counsel was no longer [giving] directive advice based on fidelity to the Constitution and the law, but basically saw the president as their own client and wanted to [free] him of any legal implications.  They looked at the law not as something with over-arching, ethical meaning, but as a set of rules you had to get around.  And to me, that’s disturbing. 

These civilian lawyers are completely unrepentant.  They feel that they’ve just been doing their job, defending their client, and they don’t have any understanding of that.  The only people who had an understanding were the military lawyers who all got it and resigned en masse.  I find that really disturbing because if that is characteristic of the lawyers who serve the president or any political operation, we’re in for a lot of trouble. 

RL:   You’ve mentioned that you feel most of the decent people of the FBI, the CIA, and the military have left government service. 

DR:  It seems to me that good people who are professionals and know policing have taken retirement.  Once they retire, former CIA and FBI people are clear about how there are two cultures: the culture of the professionals and the culture of those who participated in torture in the past five or six years.  It’s clear the professionals lost the battle and were forced out.  You have to draw conclusion about who’s left behind.

RL:   And they’re leaving because of the torture policy?

DR:  Yes.  One of the things that torture does is create a profoundly unprofessional atmosphere.  Whenever you authorize someone to torture, they feel they have carte blanche to do whatever they want.  They don’t want to be monitored.  It’s a process in which each operation spins out of control of central authority.  In political science it’s called “bureaucratic devolution” where the bureaucracy fragments and each part of it goes off and does its own thing with rogue operations.  Why do the hard work of intelligent policing when you have a bat?  Why develop the human intelligence to penetrate al Qaeda with a mole when you can arrest a person and stick his head under water?  This behavior happens only when people allow it, and it also destroys real policing skill and what we all need to be safer isn’t being done. 

The kinds of things that work in good counterterrorism policy aren’t being done, and it will take a long time to rebuild the intelligence agencies to a point that all of us can feel safe.  Presumably, that’s what all of us want—good counterterrorism policy—but you don’t get there with torture.

RL:   And Congress has some responsibility on these issues too.  The Military Commissions Act narrows the definition of torture.

DR:  That’s not the biggest problem for me with that Act.  The biggest problem is that the Act sets up parallel systems—you guys can torture but you guys can’t.  The military can’t torture but the CIA can.  The problem with parallel tracks is that sooner or later somebody who can’t torture asks, “Why am I using grade B practices on this guy when those other guys get all the glory by using grade A practices?”  What will happen in time is that torture seeps across that line because ordinary soldiers ask, “Why should I do just crap stuff when the CIA gets to do good stuff?”  The good stuff doesn’t work, as I’ve said over and over, but it doesn’t matter because the administration has given torture an appeal that it saves lives, and the corruption seeps across lines and the intelligence unit in the military rapidly use this, and it leads to de-professionalization in the military and loss of control. 

In Brazil, this process led to the military having to kill the torturers in their own ranks because the torturers became disciplinary problems, undermining the structure of the military.  One thing the military can’t stand is loss of discipline.   Torturers started getting into black marketing and raiding each other’s jails for prisoners.  It was a mess.  By the mid-1970’s the military said we might not be for human rights, but at least we’re for discipline and professionalism and this [conduct] isn’t going to help.

RL:   You seem optimistic about reducing the use of torture despite what you’ve seen historically.

DR:  Yes.  I am optimistic about a number of things.  As I point out in the book, human rights monitoring really does work and affects the behavior of torturers.  Some people may think that their check to their Amnesty International group or church group or local cop watch doesn’t work, but actually historical evidence is clear that these groups have an effect.  If these groups work with people on the inside that have an equal commitment to reform they can produce a world without torture, and that’s our best shot.  The key to a world without torture domestically and internationally is a combination of internal and external monitoring. 

There’s a myth that the US is pro-torture, but in fact it’s not.  Since 9/11, all the ticking time bomb scenarios and [the television program] 24 haven’t shifted public opinion at all.  It’s almost the same as before 9/11: most people oppose torture, and the more specific [the study] on torture, the more the negatives go up.  I’m optimistic about America’s opportunity to reconnect with its heritage.  I worry about specific professions like lawyers and intelligence officers, but American society still has its moral universe intact. 

Depending on the question asked, between 60 and 65 percent of American oppose torture.  And the people who support torture tracks with the approval rating of President Bush. 

RL:   And you seem happy and well adjusted despite your grim studies.

DR:  Yes, I’m happy and well adjusted.  I won’t tell you that working with torture doesn’t have a tremendous cost in terms of people’s lives and so on, but different people have a capacity to deal with it and certainly for those of us who work on cruelty in our lives is that we are risk, and we have to spend time taking care of ourselves.  In my case, I do a lot of extreme travel.  I spend 60 to 70 percent of my time taking care of myself.   I lay out in the introduction of the book all the things I’ve done: the music, the travel, the surfing.   These things have to be done if you’re going to work on torture. 

But the biggest problem with working on cruelty is you start disliking people.  Misanthropy is a real vice.  You wander asking, “How can people be so stupid?”

RL:   Is that akin to the suspicion of others some police officers report?

DR:  Absolutely.  Anybody who puts cruelty and violence first in their lives starts disliking people.  Whether you’re in the police universe or the human rights universe, you think of people as petty, small, manipulative and stupid.  It’s very hard to get back into a modality where you like people.

I must say that part of what I do is to appreciate people again, to appreciate that we are human, that we all make mistakes, and it’s part of our lives that people do stupid things.  Otherwise we’d be angels, and we’re not.  I reconcile myself to the frailty of human beings including myself, and that makes things interesting. 

RL:   How can average citizens work to end torture?

DR: Torture is my [issue], but there’s a lot of violence in society that deserves attention.  We live in a society where we try to keep the state out of our lives and have a lot of social freedoms, and there’s a lot of violence that happens apart from the state in homes and schools and fraternities.  All of these deserve attention and focus. 

My next book, Approaches to Violence, is a manual to help people working on violence issues [with] the toolkit I use for torture.  A lot of the violence that academics study and politicians pass laws about we didn’t discover.  What happened was that ordinary people came forward and said this violence has to stop in my neighborhood.  We never studied genocide separate from war until the Holocaust victims came forward.  We never studied violence against women as separate from assault until the feminist movement came forward.  We didn’t study torture separate from war until the anti-torture movement came forward in the sixties. 

Social movements brought violence to the fore.  The academics said we’ve studied this before.  No you haven’t, and these issues emerged as fields of study.  Likewise the politicians learned that violence against women was a serious issue or that rape wasn’t covered by international law protecting victims, and social movements brought this forward. 

If we’re going to count on social movements to identify forms of violence at home and abroad that are worthy of our attention, both scholarly and politically, then why aren’t we giving them the tools to do it.