Torture history could be a guide

Special to The Times

Torturers don’t usually leave a paper trail, but when they do, they prefer it locked behind official secrecy acts. The Bush administration’s infamous 2002 memo on acceptable interrogation techniques may yet stay buried for decades, and liberal intellectual Noam Chomsky’s assertion that all torture in the late 20th century stems from the CIA cannot be examined without documents -- or tapes. Torture is on a lot of people’s minds, but it’s difficult to study.

Reed College professor Darius Rejali’s approach is to track the different behaviors, trends and traditions in torture throughout history to see who influenced whom and what they did. In his book, “Torture and Democracy,” Rejali argues that torture is a craft, not a science, whose practitioners “pick their techniques by imitating others, opportunistically adapting familiar procedures from other contexts, and following gossip and rumor.”

Rejali, a leading expert on government interrogation techniques, reaches key conclusions. First, monitoring by human rights groups doesn’t stop torture; it simply causes torturers to resort to techniques that don’t scar, including methods that some Americans call “torture lite.” After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, a U.S. Special Forces unit placed a sign in a detention center that read, “No blood, no foul,” he writes. In fact, techniques that don’t leave marks can cause more psychological damage; they traumatize yet leave no physical evidence to corroborate a victim’s story.

Second, most contemporary torture traditions were passed on like crafts from teacher to apprentice, with transmission often flowing both ways between colonial powers and occupied peoples.


Third, Rejali writes, a person being tortured is likely to say whatever he thinks his captors want to hear, making it one of the poorest methods for gathering reliable information. The most useful intelligence is gathered through questioning the public. For instance, he notes that suspects in the recent bombings in Britain were found because family and neighbors contacted police.

Rejali writes that torture methods believed to have been used in Iraq are rooted in Western police practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in British military punishments and in tortures practiced on slaves. When soldiers at Abu Ghraib used pepper and salt solutions on prisoners’ wounds, they were taking part in a tradition with roots in slave markets. Spice and salt solutions leave no marks -- a scarred prisoner has evidence against his captors, and a scarred slave is less valuable.

Sleep deprivation, used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, was how Scottish Protestants secured confessions from witches. (Sleep deprivation causes hallucinations; curiously, it wasn’t used during the Spanish Inquisition; inquisitors found that the information produced was too unreliable.) The origin of water-boarding is harder to track because media descriptions of the practice don’t make sense, Rejali says. But the famous picture from Abu Ghraib of a hooded man standing on a box resembles a technique used in modern-day Brazil, where it was called the “Vietnam.”

Anthropology and folklore have been used for decades to reconstruct thought patterns behind many traditions as mundane as canning food and woodworking. Applying these methods to an examination of torture is a masterful idea. But after a few fairly coherent chapters, “Torture and Democracy” becomes a mess. The archival research appears firm, but Rejali uses little in the way of anthropological methods or folklore theory to examine the practices. There are no maps, and the few graphs included are hard to understand. (I found myself praying for battleship graphs -- instrumental in decoding trends in New England gravestones.) If you want knives to dissect cultural phenomena, anthropology has a kitchen-full: statistical analysis, reams of theory and some fairly sensible thoughts about why people lie. Rejali uses almost none of this.

“Torture and Democracy” does lay the groundwork. However, the frightening question is: Who will read it? Torturers and their keepers may find it useful, not as an academic study but as a field manual.


Laurel Maury is a New York- based writer and critic.