» download (mp3, 1:00)

As we look for guests for each show, we seek authoritative voices who not only have the expertise to speak about delicate subjects but a personal investment in that subject as well. In this week’s show, “The Long Shadow of Torture” (available via podcast on June 11), we found that voice — Darius Rejali, a professor of Political Science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

He’s written several books on the topic of violence and torture, including Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran and, most recently, Torture and Democracy. In the preface to the latter, Rejali writes about his personal stake on this subject:

Perhaps as a child, I was more disposed to thinking differently about violence than others. My relation to violence was more intimate. On my Iranian side, royal autocrats in my family had no difficulty ordering torture or genocide when it served their interests. Stories of their deeds are, to say the least, unforgettable. On my American side, we remember General Sherman’s march through Georgia. In September 1864, as cannons shelled Atlanta, my ancestor, Harriet Yarbrough, dug a hole in a bank and hid there with her two children. Afterward, she was one of 446 families who stayed behind; she had opposed the war passionately from the outset, but when Union soldiers destroyed the Yarbrough home for firewood, that was the last straw. Undaunted by the situation in which she found herself, she went to find Sherman and unleashed all her fury at him. It did no good, and the site of her home is now part of Olympic Park. She filed for reimbursement from the War Department, and pursued the claim until 1891. She never forgot.

Being an Iranian aristocrat — American Southerner, a Shiite Muslim — Calvinist with a keen sense of history, presents unique intellectual and moral challenges. If you had told me early in childhood that I would write a book on Iranian torture — as I did — I would not have believed you. And I am just as surprised, I think, that this new book is also on torture.

But it seems my family’s tales of the dark side of human life have put me in a good position to understand where we find ourselves today. Exactly a hundred years ago, my Iranian great-grandfather fought to defend his autocratic way of life. He did not hesitate to turn cannons on crowds or torture people he considered terrorists and anarchists. His opponents said, there you see, his way of life is a sham, and these people disguise barbaric force behind high-minded talk of honorable values. And who was to say they were wrong? For if honorable men cannot fight fairly and win, who on earth are they, and what do they represent? In the end no one, except a handful of sycophants, mourned the passing of his way of life.

A hundred years later, believers in democracy seem to be ready to make the same mistake as my autocratic ancestor, and I am here to urge them not to. I hope I have written a story that makes us take a second look at ourselves as we enter a new century primed to treat our enemies inhumanely.

Share Your Reflection



Thank you for framing this discussion on the torture issue with tempered reason and compassion.

As a recovering survivor of "homegrown" torture, firstly inflicted by a violent rapist and followed up- as a "disciplinary action"- by my ignorant, punitive parents, I know how just how gravely serious the imposition of silence can be. If the initial physical, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse doesn't kill you, the silence and aversion of others, unwilling to see the damage done, surely will.Very painfully and slowly. Blaming the victim who speaks out is still standard operating procedure in America.

Sincere thanks to Ms. Tippett and Mr.Rejali for shining the light of lucidity upon a topic which all too often stirs up hysteria and denial in both torturers and their victims, alike.

Thank you for this program, and thank you also to mockymur for a well stated expression of the value in a conversation on torture. I agree entirely that either blaming a victim or simply 'not hearing' statements of trauma experience (denial) is common.

As the program neared its end my thoughts turned to a broader form of cultural practices that I believe is related - that is our treatment of food animals during their lives and at slaughter, and also our treatment of animals for other commercial purposes such as cosmetics. For the most part all this is out of sight, out of mind. But I cannot help but imagine what it is like to be a worker who works directly with these animals. Surely they cannot do their work without shutting down their innate sense of compassion. How dreadful that those of us who do not have these forms of employment somewhat mindlessly enjoy the products that come from these processes. The workers 'shut their hearts' to what is happening to the animals, and the rest of us 'shut our hearts' to what is happening to both the workers and the animals! I have extensive farm experience with animals and a clear knowledge of their response to stress, their capacity to demonstrate confusion and very great discomfort in anticipation of something they do not understand, especially if the scent of blood is involved, i.e. dehorning cattle. (After 20 years raising livestock, I was unable to send livestock off to commercial feedlots and eventual slaughter because I knew the conditions there. I no longer farm.)

I do not want to detract from the most supreme type of torture - human on human, but I believe we begin learning at a very early age to shut down the part of us that is spontaneously horrified by abuse. I have also been a teacher of young children. I have many years observation of their natural inclination toward compassion, and their discomfort when injustice, or more noticeable unkindness, comes to their attention. From my observation when children witness power (adults) creating pain or injustice, they begin to develop vague fears for their personal safety. They may say nothing, but it shows on their faces. This includes adult attitudes toward animals. Children are - without much direct prompting - forced to 'adjust' and learn to swallow the innate impulse to compassion because the entire adult culture has learned to do the same and no longer gives it any thought. Childhood awareness of this kind of suffering continues, and perhaps one can say 'hearts shut down' at least in this one significant way.

Perhaps something as seemingly innocuous as broad cultural acceptance of non-human abuse leads a percentage of individuals - over time - to accept even the most extreme forms of torture such as discussed on the program. We learn to shut down our inner compassion long enough to concur or participate, or we say it was 'unfortunately necessary', or we say it was deserved, or we teach ourselves not to think about something so dreadful, or we fear consequences of piping up in protest.

A huge topic, one at the very heart of our human self-understanding.

Thank you.

"Only in a state of great powerlessness, weakness, fear, and anxiety does the idea of justified torture sound even remotely reasonable to an otherwise good and moral man"
I will never forget the life example, or these wise words of an old friend of my fathers who lead several hundred British and Australian men he helped escape from Japanese work camps (through the Burmese jungle to India and freedom) to return by boat to England during the second world war. "Like the death penalty", he said, "the simple fact of the matter is that when you actually see men who have been starved, tortured, or killed, you no longer have any stomach for even thinking about doing it ever again....

Primo Levi worked tirelessly to develop lesson plans on the Holocaust for secondary
schools. He somehow guessed that this terrible moment in human history would soon
enough fade from the public consciousness...
The way we cause character, virtue, values to be internalized in our youth is seriously
flawed. It is a miracle in itself that conscience is able to flourish as well as it does.