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ISR Issue 61, SeptemberOctober 2008
Hidden torture, false democracy
Torture and Democracy
Princeton University Press, 2007
880 pages • $40
Review by KRISTIAN WILLIAMS
DARIUS REJALI’S Torture and Democracy represents a profound achievement. It explains how torture has changed over the course of the last century, and especially in the last thirty-five years. It describes the innovations in technique, and traces their transfer from one setting to another, thus documenting what methods were used when, where, and by whom. The techniques themselves are listed, described, classified, and carefully placed within a broader historical context. Anyone who wants to understand water-boarding, for example, or forced standing, or the differences between electro-torture and shock therapy, can find the answers they’re looking for here. Torture and Democracy is, in fact, exactly the resource I wished I’d had when I was researching my own book on torture, American Methods.
Rejali’s contribution to the field is substantial, and Torture and Democracy is likely the most important book on the subject to be published in the last twenty years. But it is disappointing, for just that reason: it’s inadequate in dealing with the politics of torture. To be clear, let me say again that Rejali’s research is solid, his writing is crisp, his thinking is original, and the history he outlines marks a serious step forward in our understanding of the state’s cruelest practices. But his unexamined assumptions—especially about the nature of democracy—cripple his analysis and greatly limit the usefulness of his book.
Three books in one
No one would describe Torture and Democracy as an easy read. The text alone is 551 pages, with another 38 pages for four appendices, and 225 pages of notes and bibliographic material. And then there’s the subject matter. Probably only devoted scholars are going to read it all the way through, but the book is more accessible than one might expect. The prose is lucid and the social science jargon is kept to a minimum. The major stylistic flaws—repetition and interminable-seeming lists of torture techniques—are probably unavoidable given the length, scope, and nature of the book.
Rejali set out to accomplish several goals at once:
(1) to offer a history of the technology of torture around the globe over the past century and use it to engage historical, philosophical, and anthropological claims about modern torture, (2) to raise provocative questions and hypotheses about the historical pattern of torture technology and the factors that shape it, relating the development of this technology to elements not normally considered connected to it, namely, democracy and international monitoring, (3) to change public debate, (4) to offer a riposte to those who defend the use of torture, and (5) to provide a reliable sourcebook for human-rights organizations, policymakers, and politicians, drawing extensively on sources hitherto unavailable in English or so scattered and obscure as to be almost inaccessible.
Rejali meets some of these quite well, but it’s not always clear what his multiple goals really have to do with each other, or what his several audiences are supposed to make of all the material that is essentially superfluous for their respective purposes. Fortunately, many of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces. It’s often possible to find the information you need, already organized in a chapter-length package reasonably independent of the surrounding material. Chapter 10, for example, offers a thorough (and surprisingly fascinating) history of taser and stun-gun technology. Anyone interested in taking these pernicious weapons away from their local police would do well to familiarize themselves with this material. It’s a much smaller group that will really need to read the entire 136 pages of “A History of Electric Stealth”—though the full story here is probably the most interesting, and certainly the most developed, of the several technical histories contained in the book.
I repeatedly found myself wishing that Rejali had written three short books instead of one long one. The history of electro-torture would be one of these. Another would cover the broader history of torture in the twentieth century, explaining the turn toward stealthy techniques while the third would take on the arguments that justify the use of torture.
Ethics and efficacy
The third of these books would address the questions that lay people find most pressing. It would also contain what I consider to be the book’s best section, comprising chapters titled, “Does Torture Work?,” “What the Apologists Say,” “Why Governments Don’t Learn,” and “The Great Age of Torture in Modern Memory.” For this reason, I’d suggest readers consider starting with this section, and then engage the earlier chapters with its arguments in mind.
“Does Torture Work?” reviews the empirical evidence on the efficacy of torture to retrieve accurate information. Rejali concludes that, given its abysmal record and the ineradicable problems inherent to the use of torture, anything would be a better means for collecting intelligence—flipping coins, reading tea leaves, shooting randomly into crowds, or doing nothing at all. “What the Apologists Say” then goes after the claims of torture enthusiasts, the most famous being Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. And “Why Governments Don’t Learn” considers the possibilities for regulating torture and argues that torture is inherently resistant to such regulation. The final chapter, “The Great Age of Torture in Modern Memory” examines the ways we remember, mis-remember, and fictionalize the history of torture—and the implications of these stories that we tell ourselves.
These four chapters would nicely complement Henry Shue’s essay, “Torture,” which first appeared in Philosophy and Torture and Democracy in 1978. Shue’s approach is mainly theoretical. He articulates the ethical problems with torture and exposes the logical flaws in arguments intended to justify its use—specifically by identifying the suppressed assumptions of ticking-bomb cases. Shue writes,
hard cases make bad law, and…artificial cases make bad ethics.… [O]ne cannot easily draw conclusions for ordinary cases from extraordinary ones, and as the situations described [by apologists] become more likely, the conclusion that the torture is permissible becomes more debatable.… The distance between the situations which must be concocted in order to have a plausible case of morally permissible torture and the situations which actually occur is, if anything, further reason why the existing prohibitions against torture should remain.
Rejali argues along similar lines, but rather than emphasize the in-principle limits of imaginary cases, he goes a step further, forcing the debate onto the terrain of hard reality. He writes, “Apologists often assume that torture works, and all that is left is the moral justification. If torture does not work, then their apology is irrelevant.” He then looks carefully at the historical record and uses the actual facts of the apologists’ own favorite stories—the Battle of Algiers, in particular—to systematically debunk their rationalizations. He concludes: “whenever apologists claim empirical insight, everyone should simply ask them repeatedly for the evidence, check the sources, and then double-check the claim with other sources. Nothing apologists have advanced so far has withstood the light of day.”
Between these two attacks, there is no room in which to wedge a justifying pretext. In a sense, Rejali has completed the philosophical project that Shue began thirty years ago. That alone would be enough to qualify Torture and Democracy as an invaluable contribution to the debate.
Civilization and masculinity
So if torture fails so badly, why do Dershowitz-style intellectuals continue to defend it? And why is the public drawn to such arguments?
In the final pages of Torture and Democracy, Rejali suggests that a major cultural and psychological motivator in the acceptance of torture is our conception of masculinity. Individually, the torturer feels the need to prove that he is tough and decisive, that he is in control and will do whatever needs to be done. Collectively, torture is intended to remedy “a long-felt, common anxiety that democracy has made us weak and there are no real men anymore.” We identify torture with strength, democracy with weakness.
It’s an interesting idea, one that a lot of people (myself included) have struggled to articulate and mostly come up short. Rejali’s treatment of this debate in Torture and Democracy is too brief, but he discusses it more fully in his 2007 article from the South Central Review, “Torture Makes the Man.” That essay relates, with striking eloquence, the drive to torture with deeply rooted western conceptions of manliness, racial superiority, and imperial messianism. Drawing from sources as varied as Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, and John Noyes’s The Mastery of Submission, the essay manages to relate racialized fears of sexual licentiousness, the modern dread of the primitive and the natural, warrior ideals of masculinity (and the masculine idealization of war), and the eroticization of suffering and of power.
Rejali writes in his essay,
[W]ould you torture a terrorist if you knew he had planted a bomb and hundreds of innocents were going to die?… Either you do so, and prove you’re a man. Or you do not, and then you show you are weak, because your values—democratic, enlightened, liberal, idealistic—made you weak….
The article is sweeping in its analysis, and radical in its implications. Torture, by this reading, remains a sort of blood sacrifice intended to settle our unease about the nature of our civilization. We find comfort in torture, because we fear equality.
The conception of masculinity that informs the judgment, “Yes, I would torture,” is based on deep doubts about the life one is living, about the values one is allegedly defending through torture, and ultimately, about one’s own masculinity.…
Those who do not think we can win by means of these [democratic] principles harbor deep doubts, not about the strength of al-Qaeda, but about the founding beliefs of our civilization. They worry that we have become sissies and our enemies know it. Nothing will shake their belief in torture’s efficacy, no matter how much evidence is provided, because this belief is so wrapped up with their perception of themselves.
[T]he terrorist’s suffering is uniquely satisfying regardless of whether he reveals any information. Beneath the urbane, civilized appeal to torture for information, lurks a deeper impulse, born of fear and satisfied by pain.… [I]t is difficult to understand why this response (as opposed to so many others) is so satisfying without acknowledging that [through torture] officials are also purging the wounded community’s furious emotions with human sacrifices.… Strategic talk about torture in the face of terrorism turns out to have a deep undercurrent of blood lust.
If this is right, then torture does not only function as a means of intimidation and public terror, but also symbolically creates a sphere of perceived protection and inclusion. By identifying the enemy with its actual or potential victims, torture also implicitly constructs a public—an “imagined community”—that its practices purport to keep safe. When people identify themselves with the privileged, protected “us” and not the tortured, terrorized “them,” the result will enhance both their sense of in-group solidarity and belonging, and their direct loyalty to the state. (This effect is most easily produced when “we” and “they” are also divided along identifiable lines of race, ethnicity, or religion.) These ideological factors do not simply cause the state’s violence, but they do help to legitimize it. The state’s relationship to torture is chiefly instrumental, but the cultural backdrop undoubtedly helps to shape its specific practices, motivate its individual functionaries (both at the policy and the tactical levels), set the terms of public debate, and maintain a deep ambivalence in public opinion.
Unfortunately, this compelling deconstruction of the rationales for torture and the curious history of electrical torture are in a way incidental to the main project of the book—demonstrating that it was the democracies, and not authoritarian governments, that introduced the main innovations in torture during the twentieth century. It’s here that Rejali really gets himself into trouble. The research is as thorough, and the writing is as graceful, but the politics are thin—and the failure to challenge some basic liberal assumptions confuses both the analysis and the presentation.
Rejali’s main thesis, as he provocatively presents it early on, is that “clean torture and democracy go hand in hand.” Clean torture, here, is in contradistinction to scarring torture; and democracy is contrasted with authoritarian government. The first of these distinctions is astute; the second is confused.
“Clean methods” include sleep deprivation, electro-shock, certain types of beatings, suffocation and partial drowning, forced standing and exhaustion exercises, and the use of some drugs. Tracing the history of these and other related techniques, Rejali argues that most originated with military punishments or with slavery, found their way into the interrogational practices of “the main Western democracies” (Britain, France, and the United States), and—after a period of refinement and transference—were adopted by authoritarian states.
The problem is the uncritical acceptance of the self-description of three imperial powers as “democracies.”
Rejali defines the term this way:
Democracy is a form of government based on amateurism (citizens rule in turn by means of lots or elections in a free choice among competitors) and participation (a significant segment of the society has access to these means). In authoritarian states, by contrast, leaders are self-appointed, or if they were elected, impossible to displace afterward. These leaders typically justify their rule by some claim other than amateurism, most commonly bureaucratic or military expertise, moral and religious authority, or their unique personal qualities such as character or descent. While some authoritarian leaders may allow participation in various national referenda, those electoral processes are highly constrained or the outcomes predetermined.
He presents this as a strict dichotomy, but the states with which he is chiefly concerned exhibit features from both categories. In the United States, for example, it is true that a “significant segment of the society” participates in a political process by which “citizens rule” via elections. But these elections are chiefly contests among elites. It is hard to reconcile the idea of “amateurism” with our apparatus of professional politicians, campaign managers, policy advisers, media consultants, and party operatives. The “citizens [who] rule” are small in number and chosen from a distinct class; and the “significant segment” that chooses them is itself a minority. Even leaving aside the systematic disenfranchisement of non-naturalized immigrants, the homeless, prisoners (and in many places, former prisoners), adolescents and children—and ignoring for the moment the tendency of such legal exclusions to disproportionately affect the poor and people of color—it is still a minority of those eligible who engage the relatively feeble mechanism of the ballot once every few years. It is an even smaller minority that controls what appears on that ballot, and that has the dominant influence over leaders once they are elected. In this sense, our electoral processes are highly constrained even if the outcomes are not precisely predetermined.
This is true in another way as well: The most important issues never come up for a vote, do not feature prominently in any major debate, and are in effect ruled out in advance from honest consideration. No serious candidate for national office genuinely advocates an end to U.S. imperialism, or the nationalization of industry, or the wholesale closing of the nation’s prisons. The overall structure of our society and the nature of the institutions that animate it are simply not up for discussion. Electoral debates, instead, focus inordinately on various sorts of “expertise” (usually presented in terms of “experience”), on “moral and [indirectly] religious authority,” and most clearly, on matters of “character.”
And when you look carefully at the nature of the main social institutions, the paucity of our “democracy” becomes apparent. Yes, we vote for presidents and members of Congress. But we do not vote for the administrators and the generals who interpret and manage their policies; and we certainly don’t vote for the low-level functionaries—the civil servants, soldiers, and police—who actually do the work of these institutions. These people “justify their role…[in terms of] bureaucratic or military expertise,” and from the position of the citizens they are typically “impossible to displace.” No matter who we vote for, the bureaucrats remain.
Things are even worse if we turn our attention away from the state per se and consider society as a whole—especially if we consider the role of the private tyrannies called corporations. These are some of the most powerful institutions in our society, and they exercise enormous influence over the political system, the media, and the economy—not to mention our daily lives. But the public does not vote for them and cannot displace them. And there is no democracy in the workplace.
All this suggests that Rejali’s authoritarian/democratic split is, at the very most, a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy. The study of torture may offer one indication of where a society falls along that continuum—revealing both the extent of its authoritarianism and the limits of its democracy. To understand the use of torture in such systems, we should look at who is tortured, and ask who allows the torture and who benefits from it. In places, Rejali comes close to this approach. He writes, for example:
Police torture immigrants, the homeless, and the poor, reminding them where they can and cannot go. Torture is not the only way to generate highly segmented city streets, divide up public spaces, and create semiprivate ones (gated communities and malls). But where such demands exist, torture is not too far away.
On the whole, however, Torture and Democracy, neglects questions of inequality—which is to say that it avoids addressing the real question of democracy. “Democracy” and “authoritarianism” feature prominently as types of states, but they appear only as formal categories nearly devoid of normative content. The difference between them comes down to a procedural question over how leaders are chosen, and there are no further criteria concerning rights and liberties, the rule of law, or legal—not to mention social—equality. In fact, Rejali explicitly excludes consideration of such values:
Of course, someone may believe that all institutions in a democratic society should embody democratic principles.… But let us also concede that this is not an empirical position, but a normative one presented as an empirical objection. On this view, there are no democracies today and there never have been. I have no difficulty with advancing normative ideals of democracy, but I do worry when they blind one to the ways in which torture is integrated into existing democratic societies. Then they become excuses for not dealing with the real world.
This “empirical,” “real world” approach to democracy makes it possible to examine the social conditions that give rise to torture, and the uses to which torture is put, without noting the peculiarly undemocratic implications of those conditions, the resulting practices, or their evident aims:
Stealthy torture…commonly appeared in democracies engaged in ongoing guerrilla wars, in societies that had just transitioned from authoritarian to democratic government, and in consolidated democracies with sharp civic divisions based on class or ethnicity. This corresponds to the typical conditions in which democracies turn to torture: to gather information in national security contexts, to induce false confessions, and to intimidate others and ensure civic discipline.…
I take it that Rejali means to be challenging the self-presentation of governments like those of Britain, France, and the United States, deflating their opportunistic posturing on human rights. But he does so in such a way that he continuously reinforces the mythology of the “liberal democratic government.” He does this by artificially distinguishing between democratic and authoritarian regimes (even as their practices come to resemble each other’s), by repeatedly identifying “public monitoring of human rights [as] a core value of democracies” (even while the governments in question develop tactics to evade monitoring), by presupposing that democracies are more responsive to public disapproval (despite the fact that authoritarian states also adopted clean methods in response to monitoring), by refusing to recognize the torture inherent in other, legal uses of the same techniques he condemns (the use of fire hoses against civil rights demonstrators, for example; or the use of pepper spray and tasers for “compliance” purposes), and by consistently failing to note the thoroughly undemocratic nature of the institutions employing torture.
Rejali’s account does, certainly, reveal the stark hypocrisy of the states in question. It makes it impossible to believe simple-minded fables in which “we” are always “the good guys.” But he fails to draw any substantive conclusion from these governments’ failure to meet democratic norms. Either the U.S., UK, and France fall far short of the minimum standards of democracy, in which case democratic ideals are valid and yet there are no practicing democracies; or, “democracy” is just a word that we use in empirical studies to refer to whatever it is that countries with elected representatives actually do, in which case the ideal is an empty one and it makes no sense to try measuring by its standards.
Rejali wavers on this point, but it is the main question his work poses: Can democracies torture? The answer depends importantly on what we mean by “democracy”—whether we conceive of it normatively or nominally. The underlying question is whether democracy means anything more than campaign speeches and touch-screen voting—whether it can mean anything when these procedural devices are combined with secret prisons, indefinite detention, and water-boarding.
The genealogy of torture
It turns out, though, that the question of democracy does not affect Rejali’s actual argument at all. Perhaps this is what allows him such complacency about the use of the word. Rejali’s argument is only tangentially about democracy; what it is really about is monitoring.
Why do clean torture and democracy go hand and hand? My explanation is this: public monitoring leads institutions that favor painful coercion to use and combine clean torture techniques. This is because these methods make it less likely that torturers will be found out or held responsible. To the extent that public monitoring is not only greater in democracies, but that public monitoring of human rights is a core value in modern democracies, it is the case that where we find democracies torturing today, we will also be more likely to find police and military using multiple clean techniques.
The history he details is one in which clean tortures first arose in contexts where it was important to preserve the physical integrity of the victim—scarred slaves were harder to sell; debilitated sailors were no good aboard a ship—but in which the authorities nevertheless sought to employ physical pain as a means of discipline. Over the course of the twentieth century, states increasingly used these techniques in warfare, in their colonies, and to control their own citizens. The first to do so were the so-called “major democracies”—Britain, France, and the United States—countries with independent media to expose abuse and judicial review of executive practices. After the Second World War, and especially since the seventies, authoritarian states—those lacking even a nominally free press or independent judiciary—also increasingly relied on clean torture practices. Rejali explains this—convincingly, I think—by pointing to the rise of international human rights monitoring and the diplomatic, economic, and other costs associated with a bad reputation.
Rejali makes this case again and again by meticulously detailing the evolution and migration of several clean torture tactics—including many we’ve seen surface (again) in the present War on Terror: forced standing, sleep deprivation, clean beating, water-boarding. The story is never precisely the same for any two methods, and there are variations of period and region—but for each case, the overall pattern holds.
Yet the crucial factor, again is not democracy, but monitoring. By Rejali’s argument, both democratic and authoritarian states torture, and both seek to avoid detection when faced with independent monitoring. In short, when subject to the same pressures, they react in identical ways. The difference is that democratic states were subject to those pressures somewhat earlier than were authoritarian states. Therefore, what’s really at stake is not the distinction between democratic and authoritarian states, but the tension between the state per se and what some have (rather optimistically) called “the new second superpower”—global civil society. It’s not the type of state, but this balance of power—whether in the domestic or international sphere—that really matters. This conclusion follows directly from Rejali’s own argument. The problem is, in trying to challenge the leading Western governments, Rejali continually reinforces their claims to legitimacy by emphasizing a secondary correlation between regime type and monitoring while suppressing any normative claims about the nature of real democracy.
Broadly speaking, Rejali’s problem is an overemphasis on the technical at the expense of the political.
For example, he uses his mapping of specific tactics to discredit what he calls “the Universal Distributor hypothesis.” This is the story, advanced by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, among others, that U.S. imperialism has been the driving force behind the spread of torture over much of the last half-century. Rejali contradicts this account by pointing to the differences in technique between U.S.-style torture and the methods of its allies in Latin America. But this counter-claim really misses the larger point. There is plenty of evidence—much of it included in Torture and Democracy (see pages 427–30, for example)—that the U.S. government has trained armies in Latin America in the use of torture; Rejali merely suggests that this training was not ultimately decisive in terms of the practices they chose to employ. But this objection assumes too tight a link between immediate causation and political or moral responsibility. It is not that important whether the U.S. government acted as the Johnny Appleseed of electro-torture in precisely the way its critics have alleged. What matters is whether the U.S. government knowingly allowed or encouraged its allies and client states to use torture and, as a secondary matter, whether those friendly regimes did so in the pursuit of aims set out by American planners or identified locally as serving U.S. interests.
The evidence is unequivocal: Yes, the U.S. government did both knowingly allow and deliberately encourage its allies to behave in these ways, and the allies did use torture at least in part to serve American ends, sometimes to meet goals explicitly set out by the United States itself. What difference does it make, then, whether they generated the current using a field telephone or some other device?
Rejali is careful not to jump to hasty conclusions; but his methodological approach may also have prevented him from asking the right questions. He obsesses over the details of technique largely because he is interested in the drive behind innovation in torture practices, especially the turn toward clean torture. And his thesis—that the major innovations of the twentieth century came from the U.S., UK, and France—is couched in terms of “the major democracies” (rather than, say, “the major Western imperial powers”) in part because he wants to use it to ?defeat the more popular stories as to where these techniques came from—that is, “The Nazis did it,” and “The Commies did it.”
But how important are such origin stories? Why does it matter who invented water-boarding (the Dutch), given that our government is doing it now? Rejali’s approach has something of the feel of a family history, mixed with an anxiety over original sin. Less time could be spent, I think, worrying over where these techniques come from and more given to the purposes they serve today.
Open secrets, selective violence, and social control
Rejali understands that state violence works to maintain inequality—to keep people in line, to deter resistance, and to maintain the distance between elites and the disenfranchised. He specifically suggests that police forces use torture to maintain a public boundary between the privileged sectors of society and those who remain marginal. This view also speaks to the question of identity, to anxieties over inclusion, and ultimately, to the nature of our society. Consider:
Who is working legally and who illegally? Who deserves the welfare of the state, and who is a vagrant who abuses it? Who benefits from legal protection, and who deserves no legal protection? How one treats citizens, guest workers, vagrants, immigrants, and the homeless causes great controversy. Torture responds to this anxiety.… It works on the inside, leaving traces on habits and dispositions. Different kinds of people know where to go and where not to go, where is venturing too far and where is home.… Whether one can go here or there without fear of being beaten, whether one can travel in one’s car without being pulled over or electrified, these are experiences constitutive of citizenship.… Our societies offer many finely graded distinctions between citizens, and some citizens soon discover they are not treated equally. These different civic experiences create different expectations and shape future behaviors.… In these cases, torture…is conferring identities, shaping a finely graded civic order. It reminds lesser citizens who they are and where they belong.
And yet Rejali seems ambivalent about how torture accomplishes these goals: He contrasts “Classical torturers [who]…branded or scarred in public, using bodies to advertise state power” with “modern torturers [who] favor pains, physical or psychological, that intimidate the prisoner alone.”
But this cannot be right. If we assume that the only audience for torture is the immediate victim, then it could not fulfill the social function that Rejali assigns it, marking off areas of privilege, conferring social identities, and preserving inequality. Furthermore, many of the practices of modern torture would become incomprehensible. Prison guards torture non-compliant inmates, in part to make examples out of them. Death squads go to grotesque lengths to ensure that their atrocities terrorize others. Rejali himself cites the case of Abed Hamed Mowhoush, a captured Iraqi general who was beaten and placed in stress positions in a display in front of the inmate population. And elsewhere he argues that “selective violence” has the effect of silencing dissent overall:
Where violence is selective, people assume the right people are being targeted and this discourages anyone, enemy or not, from doing anything that might make them fall under suspicion. Death squads are chillingly effective even if they are not accurate.
But, of course, this general deterrence relies on the violence being broadly known. How do we understand such cases, absent the idea of public intimidation?
Rejali’s commitment to the individuation of punishment is his inheritance from Foucault, who argued that the distinguishing characteristic of modern penal systems was their favoring of individual confinement for the purposes of instilling discipline and reforming the inmate’s character, rather than the use of public demonstrations of physical violence to create a sort of awestruck respect for the might of the state.
The historical narrative of Torture and Democracy complicates Foucault’s account considerably, since it highlights the persistence of corporal punishments in the contexts of military discipline, colonialism, and slavery and then carries them forward into modern police, prison, and military practices. Rejali, then, switches between the theory of individual intimidation and that of public terror without acknowledging the tension between the two, and without attempting to explain how one can translate into the other.
There is a real puzzle here, and it relates directly to Rejali’s core thesis: How can the state simultaneously deny that it is using torture and use the threat of torture to terrorize the public (or, simultaneously—to present itself as a heroic protector)?
The answer, as I have argued elsewhere, is that we do not have to know with any certainty what happens to people in prison as long as we suspect enough to fear it. Privileged members of society may even draw comfort from such suspicions, especially if they never have to witness the violence, or face the victims, directly.
Torture exists in purported democracies as something of an open secret. We simultaneously know about torture and do not know about it. The state threatens it and denies it. We fear it, or relish it, and we pretend that it isn’t happening. Sartre would call this “bad faith.” Orwell called it “doublethink.” Rejali prefers Bourdieu’s term “méconnaissance”—“misrecognition.”
Misrecognition (“méconnaissance”) is the sociological process by which people habitually pass off one kind of situation as another. For life to go on, we proceed in this way. People misrecognize because they are invested in the particular way they think about themselves and others. Any other way of proceeding would be unthinkable or, at least, deeply disconcerting.… People partner in confirming each other’s misrepresentation of the world, even if one person ends up somewhat worse off than before.
Rejali, of course, engages in his own misrecognition, accepting at face value the claim of some states—specifically Western imperial powers—to embody democracy, even as he accumulates evidence to the contrary.
How monitoring works, and why it fails
All states rule by force, and all states need legitimacy. Of course different types of states use force differently and establish and maintain their legitimacy in different ways. But the basic task of state-building is the challenge of legitimizing monopolistic violence.
States inevitably need both coercion and public support; torture is seen as a good source of one, but it can undermine the other. Human rights monitoring works, when it does, by exploiting this contradiction and disrupting the illusion of state benevolence.
Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch document government abuses, draw public attention to them, and work to make them undeniable. Such operations put the lie to the official rhetoric about human rights and freedom, they undercut the creditability of political leaders, and they call into question the state’s claims of legitimacy. In short, they show how little the government can rely on the consent of the public, and how much it rules by force. Even totalitarian states see this as a problem. Monitoring can check abuses to the degree that it costs the government something that it needs, whether that be legitimacy, or allies, or funding, or public cooperation.
States that want to avail themselves of torture and maintain their claims to legitimacy will try to find ways to avoid the monitoring. The U.S., for example, is currently using several approaches—employing clean techniques like those Rejali describes; denying monitors access to inmates; hiding prisoners, sometimes in secret facilities; and outsourcing torture to other governments, local militias, or private mercenary firms. At the same time, the U.S. is perpetually trying to redefine torture, reinterpret its own laws, and rewrite the rules of war.
The main effect of monitoring, then, has been to push torture into invisibility, leading states to prefer “clean” methods over scarring methods, secret prisons over the public scaffold. Progress, in principle, has expanded norms of humane treatment and respect for rights, while in practice it has meant only less visible violence and more subtle cruelty. And even this meager sort of gain may prove to be temporary. Rejali writes:
The question is whether a superpower can, by its own actions, undermine an international regime such as global human rights monitoring.… The answer is uncertain, but this study suggests that much depends on whether the state in question is a democracy or not.… Specific, credible information and appeals to rights can shake public confidence, influence policymakers, and raise questions about government policy and legitimacy. The United States can evade human rights auditing, even damage it considerably, but as long as it is a democracy, it is unlikely to be impervious to such pressures.
Perhaps this is meant to be reassuring. It reads to me more like an open question: To what degree is the United States a democracy, after all? The measure may be, in effect, whether or not it proves susceptible to this sort of pressure. The evidence, especially since 2001, is not encouraging.
What, then, should we do? On this always-crucial question, Rejali is oddly silent. The implicit answer would seem to be more and better monitoring, though he admits that “Stealth torture has disempowered ordinary observers, making monitoring a battle among experts”; and anyway, by his very thesis, the government will likely respond to improved monitoring by finding cleaner and sneakier modes of torture.
Rejali’s answer, or non-answer, fits the overall pattern of his intellectual approach—specifically his focus on the technical at the expense of the political. For the successful abolition of torture will have less to do, surely, with advances in forensic medicine than with broad social changes—real shifts in political power, reduced stratification and greater equality, a move away from punitive conceptions of justice, and the dismantling of the institutions of violence. In this sense, perhaps it is democracy that is at issue: The end of torture may well require the creation of real democracy.