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Civic power and violence
Torture and democracy

Darius Rejali
July 7, 2004

In the wake of 9-11, no one will be surprised that torture has its supporters even among democracies. But most observers are unaware that the techniques that now characterize so much torture worldwide are stealthy, that is, they leave few marks.

This paper draws on my forthcoming book, Torture and Democracy (Princeton 2005) that explores the disturbing implication of the truth that we are less likely to complain about violence committed by stealth. Indeed, we are less likely even to have the opportunity to complain. I use we to refer to modern democrats. Dictators generally have no interest in violence that leaves no marks; intimidation may require that bloody traces be left in every public square.

Stealthy torture is more characteristic of democracies for here public monitoring - though often uneven - is far higher, and the demand for covert violence correspondingly greater. The logic of this dynamic, of the incentives and disincentives created by the tensions between authority and civic power, is certainly thoughtprovoking in itself. But I go farther, arguing that, historically, civic power and violence by stealth have an unnerving affinity. Many common tortures today either originated in democracies or achieved their most characteristic form in that context.

Today interrogators notice who monitors them (local or foreign, internal or external observers), how specialized they are (doctors, journalists, church groups, or judges), and how frequent and comprehensive monitoring is. As the level of global monitoring has increased since the 1970s, authoritarian states have also turned to stealth torture. Thus it is not regime type per se but the kind of monitoring that shapes the practice of modern torture.

This study suggests that international norms of acceptable behavior are far more robust that commonly acknowledged. Moreover, if there has been a global transformation in the means of torture over the last century - a sweeping change that is rare enough with any method of violence - this change is all the more remarkable in this case because of torturers reliance on hidden networks; there is no Janes Torture Weekly. This study identifies what factors shape the diffusion of torture methods, rejecting common explanations based on ideology, culture and scientific efficiency. Other Issues Discussed in Torture and Democracy.

* How does torture appears in democracies? One might think that demand for torture in democracies arises mainly in national emergencies. But this does not explain many cases where analysts have documented systematic torture in democracies when an objective external threat was absent. In these cases, the demand for torture arises out of public fear of crime or perceived breakdown in civic order. Police, either on their own or with tacit consent, set about torturing to create safe streets. These two sides are not unrelated. By mapping techniques, Torture and Democracy shows how soldiers training in stealthy techniques bring these to their civilian lives as policemen, correctional officers and private security. What happens “over there” often circulates back home.

* How do torture techniques spread? Torture and Democracy offers the first mapping of torture by technique rather than by country. It maps the demand for and supply of specific techniques worldwide. Its main example is the demand for and supply of electrotorture from 1890 to the present. The book maps the incidence and frequency of electortorture, examining interstate and intrastate variations in the practice.

* Does torture work? Advocates of torture often assume that torture works in this sense better than other methods of investigation and all that is left is the moral justification. But if torture does not work, if it cannot be administered professionally, scientifically, and productively, if it offers no temporal advantage in the case of “a ticking time bomb,” then the whole argument is pointless. Can torture be used to intimidate prisoners? Yes. Can it force false confessions yes? Can it produce true information better than other policing techniques? No. The available empirical evidence on this is conclusive. Choosing to travel somewhere by plane or by car is not a choice, if the plane cannot get off the ground.

* How do we remember torture? Many times writing this book I followed well-known memories of torture down broad avenues into blind alleys. As I wrote each chapter, I came to understand that how we remember torture is as much a part of the story I am telling as the actual mapping of the torture techniques themselves. Too often the problems that arose in the mapping arose not from what was done, but from what was subsequently said about what was done. Some of us, more than others, are in a position to confront the practice of torture today, but all of us have the responsibility to attend to what we say about torture and to appreciate how important it is to take proper care of our memories.

Darius Rejali is a nationally recognized expert on the causes and consequences of torture. He is a 2003 Carnegie Scholar, received for his forthcoming book Approaches to Violence (forthcoming Princeton 2006). He is the author of Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Iran (Westview 1994) and Torture and Democracy (forthcoming Princeton, 2005). He is a Professor of Political Science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. (homepage)

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Book of the day

Torture & Modernity
Self, Society, and State in Modern Iran
by Darius M. Rejali

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