power and violence
Torture and democracy
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
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
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
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
* 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
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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