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Four years after photos of naked Abu Ghraib detainees starting appearing on the web, America is still letting out a collective yawn over our torture practices.
-ARCHIVES: The Torture Index (Mother Jones)

As the rather disgusted quote above suggests, Americans aren't particularly upset about the notion that we tortured Ba'athists/al Qaedists in Iraq. Even when it was done by criminally irresponsible loose guns, as in this case, the reaction was largely indifference, nevermind when done as a matter of official policy, subject to controls and supervision. In fact, Mr. Rejali performs a great service--though perhaps not the one he intended--by showing that torture has been utilized pretty routinely by democracies. He exhaustively catalouges the voluminous history of torture by democratic regimes and makes it clear that any suggestion that torture is antithetical to our traditions and values generally is untenable and antihistorical. It is when he moves beyond the historical record to attempt analyses that his book gets sketchy. And, because he ignores both the self-contradictory aspects of the framework by which he conducts his analysis and the alternatives to his own hypotheses, his text ends up being imbalanced, merely argumentative rather than persuasive.
To begin with, Mr. Rejali accepts the classic divide of the purposes of torture into three categories: to punish, to extract a confession, and to extract intelligence. The US Constitution forbids the first two--the first because we consider it cruel and inhumane, the second because we consider such confessions inherently unreliable--but is silent as to the third. The difference between torture to elicit intelligence and the other forms is really the point upon which the whole issue turns, but the author fails to consider the differences adequately.

Mr. Rejali goes to great pains to explain how democracies have been innovators in what he refers to as "clean" torture methods, that is forms of torture that do no lasting physical damage to the target. But it is his argument--the main thesis of the book--that we do so in order to be able to hide said torture. That argument is obviously undercut by both the volume of detail on torture he's able to provide and by the previously mentioned fact that the citizenry is quite blase about torture revelations. Even public opinion polling, in which people notoriously shade their answers to suit what they perceive as politically correct, demonstrates that most Americans (and citizens of other democracies) approve of torture, at least as applied to terrorists. It is a basic axiom of democracy that governments do not tend to hide from their people the carrying out of the popular will. So, if there isn't any great need to conceal torture then an alternative explanation for "clean" techniques deserves consideration and one just happens to be readily available.

As the Constitution reveals our general distaste for torture it can hardly be surprising that when we do resort to it we try to make it as humane as possible. It is precisely because we are not seeking to punish those we question, but just to extract answers, that we would not choose to use methods that would permanently disable, disfigure, or otherwise harm. The point of the torture that we undertake is not the torture itself but the potentially useful fruit it may bear. Does anyone seriously doubt that if we had a magic pill that would make terrorists tell us the truth and would have no after effects whatsoever that we would happily use it instead of torture?

Here we butt up against another of the contradictions in Mr. Rejali's framework. He argues, correctly, that we do not use torture to obtain criminal confessions because we recognize that torture is so effective that you can get anyone to say anything if you're willing to be sufficiently brutal. Obviously if we can not know whether a confession is true or false it is useless to us. However, he then pivots and maintains that torture is also an ineffective way to obtain intelligence from otherwise unwilling captives. This makes no sense. If torture is so fearsome a tool that it will force you to falsely implicate yourself in a crime for which you will be executed it can not also be so weak a tool that you won't reveal truths. And given that your answers can then be tested against facts on the ground, to determine their truth or falsity, torture would seem to be a most useful tool.

It might be helpful here if we move from the abstract to the concrete. We know now that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, operational leader of al Qaeda at the time of 9-11, for less than three minutes broke him and that he began to spew forth answers he'd previously refused to give. As a threshold matter, it's worth noting that CIA interrogators are themselves submitted to waterboarding as part of their training, making this one of the ultimate "clean" methods. If we are going to use torture--and Mr. Rejali's book provides 800 pages of evidence that we are--then we surely wish to use the most humane methods we can find, and those that we are willing to use on ourselves unquestionably qualify.

Next, the rapidity with which the technique worked--and this was apparently the longest anyone ever held out--suggests that, contrary to Mr. Rejali's assertion, we have at least one extremely efficient means of torture. If we can extract vital intelligence quickly and cleanly the objections to torture begin to disappear.

This leaves only one real objection and it's one that we'll have to leave hanging for now: is the intelligence that is produced by waterboarding useful? It will probably be some years before we know whether al Qaedists who were tortured revealed identities, operations, plans, etc. that we were then able to take action against, but this should be the test for whether we continue to use torture, even after we've made it as compatible with our liberal values as possible. If waterboarding these terrorists turns out to have been useless on the intelligence front, then no matter how clean it is we should discontinue it. But, if it turns out to have provided significant information, then this aspect of Mr. Rejali's argument is dealt a death blow.

Ultimately, the book makes arguments that are overbroad and unsustainable and presents a central hypothesis--that clean methods are used to evade detection--which is too starkly contradicted by the facts and too easily explained away by other factors for us to take it very seriously. It seems much more likely that while democracies find it necessary to torture they opt to use clean methods because they are efficient and humane, rather than that they are stealthy.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Darius Rejali Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Darius Rejali (Professor of Political Science, Reed College)
    -BOOK SITE: Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali (Princeton University Press)
    -ESSAY: A Painful History: Why have modern democracies been such important innovators of torture? (DARIUS REJALI, The Chronicle Review)
    -ESSAY: The Lesson of July 21 (Darius Rejali, July 20, 2006, Huffington Post)
    -ESSAY: Torture's dark allure: It gives its practitioners a drug-like rush. But it leaves a legacy of destruction that takes generations to undo. (Darius Rejali, 6/18/04, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Does torture work?: The French military's use of torture in Algeria is often cited as a success story. But the real story is more complex. (Darius Rejali, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Of human bondage: The kinds of torture used at Abu Ghraib stem from techniques common to colonial imperialists, Stalin's secret police and the Gestapo. (Darius Rejali, 6/18/04, Salon)
    -ESSAY: How torture begets more torture (Darius Rejali - Slate Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Violence You Can't See (Darius Rejali, AScribe Newswire)
    -ESSAY: Torture, American style: The surprising force behind torture: democracies (Darius Rejali, December 16, 2007, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: 5 Myths About Torture and Truth (Darius Rejali, December 16, 2007, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Civic power and violence Torture and democracy (Darius Rejali, July 7, 2004,
    -ESSAY: The Real Shame of Abu Ghraib (Darius Rejali, 5/20/04, TIME)
    -ESSAY: From the Outside Looking In (Darius Rejali, Winter 2007, Reed Magazine)
    -AUDIO: Waterboarding: An Issue Before Mukasey's Bid: Host Jacki Lyden takes a step back from the week's events to look at the history of waterboarding with Darius Rejali (NPR, 11/03/07, All Things Considered)
    -INTERVIEW: Tackling Torture: Torture isn’t just morally unjustified—it doesn’t even work, says Darius Rejali ’81. (Elizabeth Redden, June 2004, Swarthmore College Bulletin)
    -INTERVIEW: The rise of 'clean' torture (Michael Bond, 23 February 2008, New Scientist)
    -INTERVIEW: INTERVIEW: Six Questions for Darius Rejali, Author of ‘Torture and Democracy’ (Scott Horton, February 13, 2008, Harper's)
    -INTERVIEW: Darius Rejali: Portland-based expert on state-sponsored torture answers some painful questions. (Lawrence J. Maushard, November 28, 2007, Willamette Week)
    -PROFILE: A Reed professor's life's work: Darius Rejali: Scholar studies torture, ancient and modern (STEVEN CARTER, 10/06/03, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali (Michael O'Donnell, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Torture and Democracy (MICHAEL McGREGOR, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of Torture and Democracy (Alex Danchev, Times Higher Education Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of Torture and Democracy (Laurel Maury, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Torture and Democracy (Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ARCHIVES: The Torture Index (Mother Jones)